Buck's head snapped back. Blood poured from the cut above his right eye to join with the blood already oozing from his split lip. He staggered backward, but kept his footing, swinging as he began forward movement again. His fist connected with a satisfying crack and he knew he had just broken the man's nose. He shook his head, trying to remove some of the blood that was making it harder to see in the already dark alley. He had entered the alleyway just moments before, after hearing a woman's muffled cries, to find a man almost twice his size slapping a young woman as she fought to get away from him. Buck had pulled the man off, but had received a fist in the stomach for his efforts. As much as Teaspoon lectured the riders about fighting, he always allowed for self-defense. Buck knew he was the underdog in this fight, but he also knew a few tricks. He was just hoping the woman would calm down enough to run for some help.
The man charged him, knocking him up against the brick of a building. Buck brought his clenched hands down on top of the man's nose again, further enraging the big man. He wrapped his arms around Buck's chest, squeezing as he lifted him into the air. Buck put pressure against the man's throat, cutting off his air until the big man dropped him. Then he dropped low and swung his leg around, catching the man's legs and knocking him to the ground. Springing back to his feet, Buck danced back a step or two, out of the immediate reach of the man and away from the confining wall. The man staggered upward and Buck caught a glint of metal. He had pulled a knife. Buck jumped back as the man swung the blade, but it still made contact, leaving a large cut across Buck's stomach. Buck ducked again as the blade swung at his head, dropping down and placing a kick upward into the man's stomach, knocking the air out of him with a loud oomph.
When the man recovered he lunged at Buck once more. Buck grabbed his wrists and dropped downward, placing a foot against the man's chest and rolling backward, tossing the big man right over his head. Buck bounced back to his feet, turning in preparation of a charge from the stranger. But the man just lay there, unmoving. Buck approached cautiously, glancing to check on the woman, who was still cowering up against the building. Buck moved to within two feet of the man, and saw the reason he hadn't regained his feet. The man had landed on his own knife, the handle protruding from his neck.
Buck tried to wipe some of the blood from his eyes as he turned once more toward the woman. Suddenly he felt something smash into the back of his head. The last two things he heard as he sank to his knees and blackness overcame him, were the scream of a woman and the sound of a gun.
Buck slowly became conscious of sounds around him. He cautiously opened his eyes and instantly regretted it as the light sent lightning bolts of pain through his already aching head. He chose to listen instead. He could hear two men talking lowly, catching only an occasional word. He could tell there was a window nearby, as he could hear wagons rolling by. And something else…. his addled brain finally narrowed it down to the sounds of soldiers marching. So he was still at Fort Laramie. He finally began to remember, a girl being attacked, a fight. No wonder his muscles all ached. Then he remembered being hit over the head. He moved his arms and legs carefully as he tried to remember who knocked him out, but he could remember no one else in the alley with him except the girl and the man he had killed. The man he had killed!
Buck knew at that thought where he was. The sounds and smells were familiar to him now. He was in the Fort's jail! He had been here just yesterday, delivering a dispatch to the Army captain in charge. He moved one hand up to his head, felt a bandage there. He tried to open his eyes again, with better luck this time. He looked around the cell. There was a barred window above the cot he lay on. He could see the sky outside and determined that it was probably late morning. Looking the other direction he saw the cell door, pulled closed and undoubtedly locked.
Buck carefully swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat up, fighting the waves of nausea that came with the movement. His muscles ached with every movement and he felt a sting of pain come from his abdomen. Looking down, he saw bandages underneath his open, blood soaked shirt. He gently touched the area, then remembered the knife swinging his way. One of his eyes didn't want to stay open; the area around it was swollen and tender.
His movements hadn't gone unnoticed. He heard booted footsteps approach across the wooden floor. Leaning back against the wall he watched Captain Lawlor approach. The man stopped at the cell door, arms behind his back, watching his prisoner, for that is what Buck was sure he had become.
"Would you like anything?" the man asked.
The man turned away, picking up a metal cup and dipping it into a nearby bucket. He handed it through the bars and Buck got up stiffly to take it. He returned to the cot.
"You should know that you are being charged with the murder of James Taggert, an employee of the local saloon."
"I killed that man in self-defense." Buck said calmly. "He was attacking a girl in that alley. Ask her. She can tell you the truth."
"That would be a bit difficult. You're being charged with her murder also."
"She's dead?" Buck felt the first stab of fear at his situation. "What do you mean? She was fine the last I saw her!"
"A witness says he heard a gunshot and ran to the alley. He saw you struggling with Taggert and you stabbed him in the neck. The girl was lying shot in the heart nearby. The witness then hit you over the head to keep you from doing the same to him."
Buck remembered hearing a gunshot as he passed out. He was certain that this must have been the gunshot that killed the woman, but why? He told the Captain about it.
"Well that is not consistent with the witness's testimony. It'll be up to the courts anyway. You go to trial as soon as the District Judge arrives."
"When will that be?"
"He should be here in about a week. In the mean time you might want to make yourself comfortable. You'll be here for awhile."
"I need to get a message back to Sweetwater." Buck said rising again and leaning against the cell bars. "There should be an Express rider due in today."
"I'll send him here as soon as he arrives. Your noon meal will be here soon. In the mean time you should get some rest. I'll send the doctor back in. Your wound is bleeding again." The man turned and walked away.
Buck took hold of the cell bars, leaning his head against them.
The army doctor arrived and changed the bandages across Buck's stomach. The wound wasn't bad, no stitches had been needed. The cut above Buck's eye had been deeper, and while Buck had been unconscious the doctor had closed it with three stitches. Buck had not touched the meal that had arrived shortly before the doctor did, having no appetite at the time.
"You'd best eat that boy," the doctor said as he left. "You'll need the strength for your trial."
"It was self-defense." Buck said quietly.
"Knowing Taggert, it probably was. But there's a witness that says otherwise."
"Who's this witness?"
"Taggert's employer, Martin Slayden. He owns the saloon just outside the Fort." The doctor walked off.
Buck sat quietly in his cell, legs crossed, eyes closed. It had been three days since he'd been locked up. From the cell he could hear some of the conversations that took place outside on the boardwalk. Apparently, from everything he could make out, this Slayden wasn't well liked or trusted, but no one denied that the half-breed the Army had locked up had been caught, well, red handed, as the saying went. That seemed to be the joke running around the Fort. Buck heard it over and over.
The Express rider had shown up the afternoon of Buck's first day in jail. Thankfully it was someone he knew, and he was able to convince the boy to ride to Sweetwater to tell Teaspoon Hunter and Sam Cain. He wasn't sure what either man could do to help him, but if anyone could find something to clear him, it would be these two men, and the rest of the riders.
Buck opened his eyes as he heard boot steps approach. Captain Lawlor stood at the cell door, his face somber.
"Looks like your trial has been moved up. The judge arrived on the morning stage. He's due in Seneca next week so your trial will begin tomorrow. Do you have a lawyer in mind to argue your case?" Buck shook his head. "Then the judge will appoint one. He'll be in to talk to you this afternoon." The Captain turned smartly on his heel and walked off.
Buck's muscles tensed and a lump developed in his stomach. There would be no way Teaspoon and the others could get here in time to help. For the first time Buck began to feel despair. He stood and paced the cell, no longer able to sit calmly. In a fit of sudden anger he picked up the metal cup from the floor and threw it across the cell.
Teaspoon listened calmly to the rider's story. They stood in Sam Cain's office, the rider slightly out of breath from hard riding and excitement. As he finished his story, Teaspoon turned quietly and walked out, mounted his horse and rode out to the station to gather the boys. They were going to Fort Laramie. Sam was right behind him.
"There's no way Buck killed that woman." Cody said again. Each of the riders had said much the same thing at least a dozen times. They were camped for the night, still a day and a half away from Fort Laramie and they were all anxious to get there.
"I know Cody, I know. And we'll prove it when we get there." Teaspoon looked around the fire at the five worried faces and knew there were no words that would stop their fears. One of their own was in serious trouble.
"We'd best get some sleep," Sam added. "Tomorrow's gonna be another long day."
Buck found that if he stood at an angle against the window, he could see the early morning sky as the sun rose, finding those first few streaks of color somewhat comforting. His favorite time of the day was sunrise. It was that time of the day that he preferred to pray, that he found the most comfort.
It wasn't working for him today. He hadn't slept at all that night, worried about the impending trial today. The court appointed lawyer had shown up the previous afternoon and seemed capable enough, but without a witness that could testify on Buck's behalf, he knew he didn't stand a chance. Buck saw his life stop at the end of a noose, not exactly the ending he had envisioned.
His breakfast arrived about an hour later, but he had no appetite. He had accepted the opportunity to wash up and the doctor had brought him a clean shirt. Before he knew it, the Captain was at the cell door, key in hand, with six soldiers waiting behind him. Buck silently walked out of the cell, holding his wrists out for the handcuffs waiting for him. Then they led him out of the jail and into the streets.
The walk to the saloon where the trial was to be held was torture. Townspeople turned and stared, fingers pointing. Buck could overhear comments such as "murdering heathen" and "filthy Indian". The comments cut to his heart. Just four days ago he had walked down these streets freely. And while he knew that many of these people didn't trust him, they had at least ignored him and let him go on his way. Not today. Today he was on trial for murdering a young woman, the daughter of the local banker and new wife of the store owner's son. Not to mention the saloon employee, who no one really seemed to care about, except maybe the saloon owner and witness.
They finally entered the saloon. The room was already crowded. Buck felt hundreds of eyes on him as he walked down the aisle to the front of the room. One of the soldiers shoved him into a chair next to the lawyer. Buck tried to look around. There were no faces he recognized except those of the soldiers that had been at the jail and the local Express station manager. The man tried to give Buck an encouraging smile but failed miserably at it.
The judge entered the room and the voices all fell quiet. Buck felt his heart drop to his stomach. This was it.
Teaspoon, Sam and the riders were making good time, riding hard and stopping at several of the larger way stations for fresh mounts. Ike, especially, pushed them hard, telling them that he knew something was happening to Buck even now. Teaspoon tried to calm them by telling them that Buck's trial wasn't due to start for at least another three days, but even he felt the need to eat away some miles.
"When I walked into the alley, he was over Taggert. He plunged the knife into Taggert's neck. I picked up a board I found lying nearby and hit him over the head with it. Then I called for help." Martin Slayden concluded from the witness seat.
"You actually saw him plunge the knife into Taggert's neck?" the lawyer asked, pacing back and forth.
"Yes sir. It was horrible. I've never seen a more gruesome act in my life."
"Thank you Mr. Slayden." The lawyer took his seat.
Buck studied the man in the witness chair. Slayden stared back at him, a slight smirk on his face. Buck knew he was looking at the true murderer of that young woman, but he had no way of proving it. His lawyer, Jonathan Chambers, stood and approached the witness, drawing the man's attention to him and away from Buck.
"So, you say you saw Mr. Cross here stab Mr. Taggert? Did you also see him shoot Mrs. Jacobson?"
"Well, no. But I know he did it."
"How would you know this if you didn't see it?"
"Taggert didn't have a gun. The Indian did. They were the only two in the alley so it had to be the Indian that did the shooting."
"You don't think that there could have been someone else there, someone that, perhaps, ran away before you got there?"
"I didn't see or hear anyone run off. I entered the alley so soon after the gunshot that I'm sure I would have seen someone, if there had been someone there."
"But there was enough time for Taggert and Mr. Cross to fight. The condition of my client, and Taggert for that matter, shows that there was definitely a fight. Certainly someone had the time to run away if there was time for Taggert and Cross to do so much damage to each other?"
"All I know is that I didn't see or hear anyone else."
"Thank you Mr. Slayden."
"How bad is it?" Teaspoon asked.
Ike signed a reply, which Kid translated for everyone. "Picked up a stone. This horse isn't going anywhere very fast." Kid walked over to Ike, holding out the reins to his horse. "Take mine and get going. You're wasting time here. I'll follow as fast as I can. There's another way station in about eight miles. I'll pick up a fresh horse there and catch up."
Ike accepted the reins with a nod and a look of gratitude and mounted. They all headed off at a gallop.
"Mr. Taggert had a broken nose, a few bruises, and of course the knife wound in the neck. Mrs. Jacobson had a few small bruises, like those that would have come from a struggle, and a bullet wound in the chest. The bullet undoubtedly hit the heart, causing instantaneous death. Mr. Cross received numerous bruises and scratches, a cut above his right eye and one on his lip, a knife wound across the abdomen, and a large lump on the back of his head."
"Thank you, Doctor."
"Any questions Mr. Chambers?" the judge inquired.
"Not at the moment. But I would like to reserve the right to recall the Doctor later, if need be."
"Granted." The judge looked at his pocket watch. "In that case, we'll be adjourning for the day. We'll start again at nine o'clock in the morning." The judge hit his gavel against the table and walked out of the room.
The soldiers approached Buck, and taking him by the arms, walked him out of the saloon and back to the jail. Once inside one of the soldiers behind him raised the butt of his rifle and slammed it into Buck's back, causing him to stumble forward and out of the grasp of the two soldiers holding his arms. His hands were still cuffed in front of him, so he had no way to break his fall. He smashed head-first onto the floor, stunning him slightly. The two soldiers didn't know what happened, and thinking that Buck was making a useless attempt to escape, one of them delivered several sharp kicks into Buck's ribcage. Buck doubled over, pain and nausea rushing through him. He felt rough hands grab his arms and drag him to the cell, dumping him unceremoniously onto the floor. One of them reached over and unlocked the cuffs, then they slammed the door closed and walked off.
Buck rolled to his knees, resisting the need to retch. He had a feeling a rib had broken, and his forehead was bleeding again. But he knew there would be no help forthcoming from the soldiers. He staggered to his feet and made it to the cot, lying down on his side and bringing his knees up slightly, which relieved some of the pressure in his ribcage. It was going to be a long night.
Buck must have dozed, because he awoke to the sound of someone clearing their throat. Captain Lawlor stood at the cell door.
"I hear you caused some trouble for my men this afternoon." It was a statement, not a question.
"Depends on how you look at it." Buck said, holding his arm against his chest as he sat up. "I seemed to stumble a bit when we got inside. Funny how something slammed into a person's back can cause them to stumble."
"Are you accusing my men of inappropriate behavior?"
"Not at all. I totally understand how they might think I was trying to escape. After all, I was being held by two soldiers, I was handcuffed, and I was inside a jail. Seemed like the right time to try and escape to me."
"You've got a smart mouth. I've never seen an Indian with a smart mouth before."
"Well, it must be my white blood coming out. Can I do something for you Captain?"
"You know, at one time I actually might have believed you were innocent. I've never trusted Slayden and his men. But maybe I was wrong."
"You're not wrong. I didn't do it. I think Slayden did it. I just can't prove it." Buck grimaced slightly as he stood up. "I'm sorry for being smart. I guess I'm just not at my best right now.'
"I've never heard an Indian apologize either."
"You've obviously not been around many Indians. We always admit when we're wrong. And we don't lie."
"What tribe are you from, boy?"
"Kiowa? They're warriors aren't they?"
"Only when need be. Like anyone else, they'd rather just sit back and raise their children in peace."
"Hmm. Indeed. Well, I'll send the Doctor over to see to those ribs." Lawlor left and Buck sat back down, leaning against the wall, listening to the noises from outside as the sun went down.
Teaspoon, Sam and the boys rode as long as they could, but soon it became too dark to continue. The boys sat disgustedly, tossing twigs into the fire, or throwing small rocks into the woods. They all looked up with a start as a twig snapped in the dark. Kid emerged from the pitch black as six guns pointed at him.
"It's just me!" Kid said with his hands going up into the air. He walked further in to the camp, dropping his bedroll onto the ground next to Lou's. "Any supper left?"
"In the pan." Teaspoon motioned toward the fire. "Any other trouble?"
"No." Kid helped himself to some meat, chewing slowly. "How much further?"
"We should be there mid morning." Sam answered as he tossed the last of his coffee into the fire.
"Call your first witness, Mr. Chambers."
"I call the defendant, your Honor, Mr. Buck Cross." Buck stood and walked over to the witness chair.
The judge looked at Chambers like he had lost his mind. Calling an Indian as a witness?
"Young man, do you understand the workings of this court? That you will be taking an oath to tell the truth?"
"Yes." Buck answered in a strong voice that didn't show the fear and worry he felt.
"Very well, swear him in." The judge seemed dubious.
"Mr. Cross," Chambers began, "let's start with a little background. What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a rider with the Pony Express stationed out of Sweetwater."
"Have you had any other jobs recently?"
"Other jobs? No. But I have been a volunteer scout and tracker for both the Army and for Marshall Sam Cain."
"So, you've been entrusted with information, both through the Express and in helping both the Army and Marshall Cain, that many others have not been privy to."
"I suppose you could say that."
"Mr. Cross, forgive me for my next comment, but you seem very educated for an Indian. How could that be?"
Buck didn't like this approach and a very slight edge appeared in his voice. "I attended a Mission school."
"A Catholic Mission school? So, you received a Catholic education. A Catholic education that teaches right from wrong."
"My Indian teachings taught that better than anything I learned at the Mission." Buck replied, his jaw tensing, anger setting in but restrained. It would do him no good to get angry here.
Chambers knew he had pushed Buck with the wrong tactic, but he hoped that the boy could hold his temper and that the judge would have gotten the point that they were not dealing with the typical Indian.
"Mr. Cross, please tell me what happened in the alleyway five nights ago."
"I had just made a delivery to Captain Lawlor's office, some military documents. I was passing the alley on the way to the Express station when I heard some noises, kind of muffled screams. I went into the alley and found the man you call Taggert struggling with a young woman. He had one hand over her mouth and was holding both her wrists with the other."
"What did you do next Mr. Cross?"
"I jumped him and he turned. We started to fight. He pulled his knife." Buck looked to the back of the room as he heard the door open, the first shards of hope entering his thoughts at the sight of Teaspoon and Sam entering. Teaspoon tipped his hat ever so slightly, Buck acknowledging with a barely perceptible nod.
"Were you injured yourself by this knife?"
Buck concentrated again on the lawyer's questions. "Yes. Not badly though. I was cut across my stomach."
"And then what?"
"He lunged at me. I grabbed his wrists and threw him over my head. He landed on his knife."
"You threw him over your head? Taggert was twice your size. How could you have done that?"
"You grab hold of the person's wrists or shirt front, drop to the ground, put your foot in their stomach and roll back. It throws them off balance and they go flying over your head."
"And where was the girl while you were fighting with Taggert?"
"She was over by the wall of a building. She was obviously scared. She was crying and hadn't moved."
"Go on. What did you do next?"
"I checked on Taggert, found out he was dead, then I turned toward the girl. I started walking toward her when someone hit me over the head. Before I passed out I heard her scream and a gun went off. That's all I remember."
"Did you hear anyone else in the alley?"
"No. But I was busy. Anyone could have walked in there and I might not have heard them."
"Thank you Mr. Cross. Your witness."
The prosecution lawyer stood.
"Mr. Cross, you want us to believe that you were able to fight off a man twice your size and win? That seems a little incredible to me."
"You can believe what you choose. The truth is that Taggert and I fought and I was able to defeat him. If you want to call that winning, that's up to you." A few people in the audience chuckled softly.
"Wouldn't it be more the truth that you used a knife and attacked Taggert after shooting the girl? That Taggert came into the alley to defend the girl and you turned on him and killed him?"
"No. That wouldn't be the truth at all."
"And yet you have heard Mr. Slayden's testimony that he saw you kill Taggert and that the girl was already dead? Does it not seem more likely that you tried to have your way with that young girl and Taggert intercepted?"
"Your Honor!" Chambers yelled form his table.
"Okay gentlemen. Let's get back to the facts. Do you have any other questions for the defendant?"
"No your Honor."
"Mr. Chambers, do you have any other witnesses?"
"No your Honor." Chambers said reluctantly.
"Then I am ready to rule on this case. Mr. Cross, take your seat." Buck stood and walked over to the chair next to Chambers, looking out at Teaspoon and Sam as he went. The judge cleared his throat as Buck sat.
"Mr. Cross, you have been on trial for the murder of Mrs. Rosemary Jacobson and Mr. Robert Taggert. We have heard testimony from an eyewitness, a citizen of this town, saying that you killed these two people. You have denied these charges, but you have no witness. By your own admission you are responsible for the death of Mr. Taggert. Under the circumstances I feel I have no other choice but to find you guilty as charged. Your sentence is to hang by the neck until dead, day after tomorrow at ten o'clock in the morning."
The courtroom erupted in noise as Buck sat in stunned silence.
Teaspoon stood in the doorway leading to the cell area studying the young man sitting on the bunk, head leaning against the wall, eyes closed. He looked the worse for wear that was sure. One eye was a strange shade of greenish purple, a nasty cut was above one eye, a smaller one on his cheekbone. His shirt was untucked and the first few buttons had been left undone. Teaspoon could see white bandages underneath. He took a step forward, Ike right behind him, and the boy's eyes opened slowly, a forced smile appearing on his face as he stiffly stood up.
"Buck," Teaspoon said as he walked up to the bars of Buck's cell, "How are you holding up, son?"
"All right, I guess." Buck took hold of the bars, resting his head wearily against the bars. "Hey Ike. It's good to see you both."
"The others are here, too. They're out asking questions at the moment. We're gonna find some evidence to get you out of here, son."
"I'm not sure what it would be. They say there were no other witnesses."
"We'll find something. Sam is talking to the judge and Captain Lawlor right now. We're gonna do our best to clear you."
"Thanks Teaspoon. I appreciate you trying."
"I want to sit in on that meeting with Sam, but we wanted you to know that we're here for you. We'll be back over as soon as we're done."
Teaspoon reached through the bars, grasping Buck's shoulder, then turned and left the room. He paused briefly outside the door and looked back once more before leaving. Ike stayed behind, taking up the same stance as his friend, hands grasping the bars, head resting against them. They didn't talk for the longest while, no words necessary.
"I didn't think it would be like this, you know." Buck said, breaking the silence. Ike nodded in understanding. "I always thought I'd die in battle, a warrior's death. Or even old age."
We're going to find some evidence. Ike signed. We'll get you out of here. One way or another.
"Ike, you can't do anything crazy. My spirit wouldn't rest if you got into trouble because of me. Promise me, Ike!"
Ike just stared into Buck's eyes.
"Promise me, Ike."
I can't promise you that Ike replied.
When Teaspoon and Sam returned, with Captain Lawlor following them, they found the two riders sitting on the floor, backs propped against walls, facing each other, talking. They both stood as the three men walked in to the cell area.
"Son, the judge has agreed to consider further evidence if we can come up with some." Teaspoon told them as he approached.
"We need you to go over what happened again. There's something out there that will prove you're innocent." Sam added.
Buck told the story, then told it again. Sam finally stopped him, turning to the Captain.
"Where's his gun?"
"Locked up in the gun rack."
"Can I see it?" The Captain nodded and Sam followed him into the outer office. Lawlor unlocked the cabinet and handed Sam Buck's gun and gun belt. Sam sniffed at the barrel, then checked the load.
"If Buck shot Taggert, whose gun did he use? This gun hasn't been fired."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it hasn't been fired. It has a full load and it was cleaned since it was used last. You mean you didn't even check it when you arrested him?" Sam handed the man the gun, then reached into the cabinet, picking up Buck's knife. "This is clean, too."
"That wasn't the knife he used. He used this one." He walked over to his desk, pulling a small pearl handled dagger from a drawer.
"This isn't his knife. Teaspoon!" he called the older man in from the cell area and handed the pearl knife to him. "Ever see this knife before?"
"No. Buck would never have anything this fancy. It's not his." Sam told him about the gun.
"Didn't Slayden say that Taggert didn't have a gun? I read that in the court records didn't I?"
"Yep." Teaspoon agreed. "How do you explain that Captain?"
"Perhaps he had a second gun?" The Captain answered as Teaspoon shook his head.
"Then maybe we should go look for this second gun?" Sam replied, motioning to the door. The two men walked out with two soldiers following them. Teaspoon went back into the cell area to wait.
Sam watched as the soldiers searched the alley. If nothing else, he wanted to make sure the search was an honest one, because he was sure there would be no gun found. When the soldiers turned to Captain Lawlor empty handed, Sam looked at the man, his lips pressed tight together before commenting.
"No second gun. Shall we go see the judge and get that boy out of jail?"
"This doesn't prove he didn't do it. There was a witness. Someone else may have picked up the gun by now. After all, it's been five days."
"Come on Captain. Admit it. You didn't bother with any investigation. There is no second gun. You've got an innocent boy locked up. And he's sentenced to hang."
The man turned on his heel and stalked off.
Sam reentered the jail and told those waiting there the results of the search. And that the judge, while unhappy about the lack of investigation on Captain Lawlor's part, was upholding his verdict due to witness testimony and the possibility that the gun could have been removed from the scene by someone else. Buck turned away and began to pace, his usual controlled calm waning. He had been penned up for too long and the stress was beginning to surface.
"I won't lie to you son. It doesn't look good. But if there's anything that can be done, we'll do it. We still have tomorrow. We'll find some evidence or a witness. There's gotta be something out there." Teaspoon said as calmly as he could. Buck just nodded.
"You need to get some rest. We're gonna go meet up with the others. See if they found anything." Teaspoon placed his hand on Ike's shoulder, steering the boy out of the room as he and Sam followed.
"Try to get some sleep." Sam said.
Buck stopped pacing, moving to the bars again. "Ike, wait a second." Ike stopped and moved back to his friend.
"I want to see the others…before…you know. But I need to see Cody tonight. Could you send him for me?" Ike looked puzzled but nodded yes and joined Sam and Teaspoon.
Cody entered the jail half an hour later. He looked nervous and uncomfortable, not sure what to say to his friend.
"Cody, thanks for coming."
"You doing all right? Do you need anything?"
"I have a favor to ask."
"Cody, I'm asking you a big favor. It's very important to me."
"Anything. Whatever I can do."
Buck lowered his voice, not wanting the soldiers in the other room to overhear.
"When the time comes, you know, I…" Buck stumbled over his words, knowing before he said them the reaction he would get. "I've seen people hung before. Cody, I can't stand the thought of dying like that. I want you to, no I need you to end it before then."
"What are you saying Buck?" Cody said anxiously, already catching where Buck was heading with the conversation.
"I want you to shoot me."
"What!" Cody blurted out before Buck could quiet him. The two stopped talking as one of the guards approached the door, checking out the noise. When the soldier moved away, Cody continued in a quieter voice.
"You're kidding! I can't…"
"Cody, listen to me. Hanging isn't always a sudden death. Sometimes the person hangs there for a long time before they finally die. I don't want to die like that. I need your help."
"Buck, I can't shoot you! You're my friend."
"That's why I'm asking you, as my friend. I hate to ask you to do this, but you're the only one that can and not get caught. I'd ask Jimmy, but he'd have to be too close. Everybody would see him and then he'd be in trouble. But you can do it from a distance, with that rifle of yours, and no one would know who did it. You could get away before anyone knew what happened."
"Cody, I've never asked anything like this of anyone. If it helps, call it my last request."
"I don't know."
"Cody, please." Cody looked at his friend. Buck's eyes were serious. He never asked favors, preferring to take care of things himself, but this was out of his control. Cody reluctantly nodded agreement.
"You can't be serious!" Lou exclaimed.
"I couldn't tell him no." Cody replied. He and the other riders were gathered in one hotel room, trying to devise a plan to save their friend. Cody had just told them of Buck's request, a request he had promised not to share with the others.
"We'll just have to find someone that saw something." Kid interjected.
"And if we don't? Then what? We just let him hang?" Jimmy said angrily.
I won't let that happen. Ike signed.
It was a long night for everyone. None of the riders slept much, and as they entered the cell area, it was obvious from the dark circles under his eyes that Buck hadn't either.
"Hey Buck." Lou said, reaching through the cell bars to place her hand on his cheek.
"This is crazy." Jimmy's anger hadn't diminished with the night. "You would never have killed that girl!"
"Easy Jimmy." Buck murmured. He was obviously exhausted, strain showing in his every movement and word. But he struggled to remain calm. His anger would only make things harder, on him and his friends.
"Buck, could you go over what happened again?" Kid asked. "We want to hear it for ourselves. Maybe we can think of something everyone else overlooked." Buck retold his story.
"If Slayden is the one that hit you, then he's the one that shot the girl." Jimmy said when Buck finished.
"But there's no proof other than my word. And the judge is taking the word of one of the town's citizens over mine."
"Then we just need to have a little chat with Slayden." Jimmy said as he turned and walked out of the room.
"Stop him." Buck grabbed hold of Kid's arm to get his attention. "Don't let him do anything stupid. You know what his temper gets him into."
"I'm not sure we want to stop him. But we'll go with him and keep him out of the worst of the trouble." Kid turned away to follow, Cody going with him. Lou and Ike hung back for just a moment.
"We're gonna get the truth Buck. Don't worry." Lou said, then ran after the others.
Ike stood in front of his friend, not sure what to say. Buck looked him in the eyes.
"Be careful." He said softly. Ike nodded and walked off.
The riders met up with Sam and Teaspoon and told them their plan to talk to Slayden.
"I agree, but we need to do this carefully." Teaspoon told them. "Slayden may have seen Sam and myself at the trial. Kid, you and Cody go to Slayden's saloon and see what you can get. Do it discreetly, at least for now. Lou and Ike, see what you can find out about that pearl handled knife. Sam, Jimmy and I are gonna question people around that alley and the girl's family and friends. See if there had been any trouble between the girl and either Taggert or Slayden. We'll meet at the hotel at noon."
Buck tried to pray, but the sounds of hammers and saws kept breaking his concentration. He finally stood, pacing back and forth, stopping occasionally at the window to stare at the gallows being erected nearby. He looked away as he heard boot steps approach. Captain Lawlor entered the cell area.
"Will it help if I tell you I believe you?"
"Yes." Buck answered him.
"I feel I failed you. There was a witness. So I didn't investigate further. It seemed cut and dried. I'm sorry."
"Thank you. I guess I can understand why you didn't check out my story. I appreciate you telling me this, but it doesn't do much good in the long run. I'm still going to hang in the morning aren't I?"
"I'm going to talk to the judge again this morning. Maybe I can get your sentence changed to prison."
"That's just a different type of death sentence. I'd rather hang. Get it over with."
"It would give your friends time. Maybe they could get the evidence you need."
The riders were gathered in the hotel room once again waiting for Sam. When the man entered, he was accompanied by Captain Lawlor.
What's he doing here? Ike signed.
"Yeah Sam, what's he doing here?" Jimmy demanded.
"I've come to help." Lawlor replied.
"Help? Seems to me you could have helped more by trusting Buck and checking out his story at the start." Lou said angrily.
"I know. That's why I'm here now."
"Boys, we could use the help. He knows the town, he knows the people." Teaspoon reasoned. "Now, did anyone find out anything?" Kid and Cody shook their heads.
"He wasn't saying much." Kid answered.
"We may have to push the issue." Cody added cautiously, still not wanting to trust Lawlor.
"We found one person that remembered Taggert having a fancy knife. They couldn't say if it had a pearl handle, but they did say that it was light colored. We even talked to the storeowners, but none of them had carried a pearl handled knife for sale. If it was Taggert's, he had it before he came to Fort Laramie." Lou reported.
"If anyone along that alley saw anything, they're not talking." Jimmy said. "But there has to have been someone in one of those buildings at the time of the murder."
"The girl's parents are convinced Buck did it." Teaspoon said. "They haven't had any trouble with Slayden or Taggert, so they believe Slayden's testimony. They really just want someone to pay for the murder of their daughter."
"I had a little more luck talking to the girl's husband." Sam added. "Seems Taggert had made a few advances at young Rosemary, before and after she was married. But he doesn't want to consider any other possible story. He wants to believe Slayden's testimony, too. Wouldn't be surprised if Buck being a half breed has something to do with that."
"So now what?" Kid asked.
"We hit the streets some more." Sam said.
"And if we don't find anything?" Cody asked.
"I've got a plan." Lawlor said quietly.
All eyes turned toward the Captain.
Jimmy sat in the saloon, nursing a drink while he watched Slayden. The man was sitting at a table, playing a round of poker with four other men. Jimmy was trying to listen to their conversation, but none of it pertained to Buck or Rosemary Jacobson's murder.
It wasn't long before Kid came bursting through the doors, searching the room, then stalking over to Slayden's table. Jimmy turned in his seat to watch the action.
"Slayden! You lying, sniveling, murderer! Because of you my friend is going to hang!" Kid yelled.
Slayden looked up from his cards.
"And just who would you be, boy?"
"A friend of the man you framed for Rosemary Jacobson's murder!"
"So, you're a friend of that half breed." Slayden motioned for two cards. "Go away boy."
Jimmy moved quietly closer to the table. His part in this whole thing would come in soon.
"No! I'm not going away until you admit you killed that girl."
"Don't be ridiculous." Slayden laid down his cards and raked in the pot. "Another round gentlemen?"
Kid suddenly had his gun out, pointed at Slayden's head. Within seconds, Jimmy's gun was at Kid's temple.
"Put the gun down." Jimmy said calmly. Slayden looked up at the man, as Kid slowly lowered his pistol. Then Jimmy took the butt of his gun and hit Kid in the head. Kid dropped to the floor. Just then Teaspoon and Cody came walking in the door.
"What's going on here?" Teaspoon demanded as Cody knelt next to the Kid.
"Your young friend here decided to change a judge's ruling. This other gentleman stopped him." Slayden answered as another round of poker was dealt. "If you want him to remain alive long enough to see his friend hang in the morning, I'd suggest you get him out of here. Now."
Teaspoon helped Cody lift Kid from the floor and the two men carried him out the door. Jimmy turned to go back to his drink. Slayden rose from his seat and joined Jimmy at the bar. The man motioned for a drink.
"I suppose I should thank you for stopping that hot head."
"No good Indian lover." Jimmy muttered. "Even since that half-breed didn't do it, we'll still be better off without him."
"What do you mean since he didn't do it?"
Jimmy turned and smiled at the man.
"I was walking past that alley too."
Slayden turned a ghostly shade of white. Downing his drink, he turned toward Jimmy.
"Let's go to my office so we can talk."
Kid rubbed his head where Jimmy had hit him.
"Jimmy didn't have to hit so hard, did he?"
"Well, he had to make it look realistic didn't he?" Cody said from the shadows of the alley entrance. Moments later Lou slipped into the alley.
"Slayden just took Jimmy back to his office." She said quietly. Teaspoon looked down the alleyway, giving Ike a signal, who in turn passed the signal on to Sam, who was stationed outside a window at the back of the saloon. Sam ducked down as the office door opened. He could hear the two men walk into the room and the door close.
"Have a seat. Would you care for a drink?"
"So, what exactly do you think you saw?'
"I saw it all. I saw you enter the alley, before the gunshot."
"You did now?"
"Yep. Saw you shoot the girl, too."
Slayden chuckled. The sound carried a dangerous edge.
"So what do you want?"
"Nothing. Told you I don't care if that half-breed hangs. In fact I rather admire the fact that you managed to frame him so easily."
"It was pretty easy."
"I just have one question. If you'll permit me?'
"Why'd you shoot her?"
"The girl? Well, she saw a little business deal I was negotiating. I didn't want anyone to see this 'deal' "
"Fair enough. Had a few of those 'business deals' myself." Jimmy stood. "Don't worry mister. I've got no reason to try and save that half-breed tomorrow. Your secret is safe with me." Jimmy walked out the door.
Sam slapped his hand against the table. His voice was full of frustration.
"But the man admitted to killing the girl! Jimmy heard it and I heard it."
"And you are desperate to save your friend. If anybody but you or one of your men had heard it, I'd take it into consideration. But I can't help but think that you would say just about anything to free that young man. Unless you can come up with an unbiased witness, the verdict stands."
Jimmy threw his hands up in frustration. "You're making a big mistake Judge."
"Easy Jimmy." Teaspoon cautioned. "Now your honor, just what is it going to take to convince you that Buck is innocent?"
"I told you. An unbiased witness. Or Slayden's confession to Captain Lawlor or myself."
The three men stormed out of the judge's room.
The rest of the riders were at the jail. Lawlor was there too, waiting for word from the judge.
"Don't worry Buck. The judge has to listen." Lou said, hope in her voice for the first time since they had arrived.
"I hope so Lou." They all looked up as Sam, Teaspoon and Jimmy walked angrily in. Teaspoon hesitated a moment, looking at each of his boys, not happy about delivering the news.
"I'm sorry Buck." There were groans and curses from the riders until Teaspoon held up his hand. "I'm sorry. The judge said that Sam and Jimmy were biased witnesses. He's upholding his judgement."
"He can't do that!" Cody exclaimed. "Jimmy got him dead to rights!"
"I know Cody. I know. We've got the rest of the night and a few hours in the morning to find something else."
"So why don't we get back out there. I'm not sure how much more we can get tonight. The town is pretty much closing up. But we'll come up with something. I promise you, Buck, we'll find something."
"I know Sam."
Teaspoon motioned the riders out. None of them wanted to leave their friend, but they also wanted to get back out there and find someone or something to clear him. Teaspoon remained behind.
"Son, I can't lie to you. The chances are getting mighty slim that we're going to find anything."
"You'd best try and get some rest. The boys and me have some work to do yet." Teaspoon turned to leave.
"I don't want them there tomorrow. I don't want them to watch."
Teaspoon looked into the young man's face. He was surprisingly calm, seeming to have accepted his fate.
"I understand. We'll see you in the morning." Teaspoon left the room. Only then did Buck give in to the shakes that threatened to consume his whole body.
The soldiers pushed Buck roughly through the jailhouse door. He stumbled just a little, but quickly had his footing, and began the too short walk to the gallows. He stopped briefly at the bottom of the steps, then continued upward. Best to get this over with, he thought. The soldiers moved him into position and the noose was placed over his head and tightened around his neck. Captain Lawlor moved to his side.
"I'm truly sorry about this boy. I had hoped that your friends would find some sort of evidence before the judge left."
Teaspoon and the boys had been in to see him an hour ago, no new evidence having presented itself. They all looked worn out, not having slept all night, trying to come up with answers. But it all came down to good byes. Buck felt tears spring to his eyes as they all walked out, something that didn't happen to him often. But he didn't cry for himself, he had accepted his fate. The tears were for Ike, and for the family of the girl who only thought they were getting justice, while the real killer of their daughter still lived among them.
Buck scanned the crowd as the charges against him were read. Teaspoon and Sam were there. He would have preferred that they weren't, but someone had to claim his body when this was over. Teaspoon had promised him a Kiowa ceremony. But worse still, Jimmy was there. He hadn't wanted any of his friends to watch this. Jimmy looked up at him briefly, then down at his feet.
As the charges were finished, Buck turned his attention to the buildings within view of the gallows. As they pulled the hood over his head, he caught the glint of the sun on metal. Cody had kept his promise.
Buck heard a minister begin a prayer. He didn't know why, since he didn't share the white man's religious views. Instead he repeated over and over in his head, Let Cody's aim be true, let Cody's aim be true.
"May God forgive me." He heard Lawlor say. Then he heard the trapdoor latch slam forward, felt the tightening of the rope, heard the crack of Cody's rifle. He felt himself falling and waited for the bullet that would end his life. The noose tightened more around his neck, but his fall didn't end---until he hit the ground. He wasn't ready for this turn of events and he twisted his ankle as he landed, then fell hard against the dirt, pain from his broken ribs causing him to cry out. Everything became a blur for him as he felt a pair of hands yank him to his feet.
"Come on Buck, we've got to get going!" It was Kid's voice.
"What…" was all he could get out through the stifling hood. As he heard Jimmy's voice telling the soldiers to drop their guns, his hands were shoved onto the pommel of a saddle and he automatically swung up and onto it. The horse moved off, someone leading it, and all he could do was hold on.
Jimmy's gun was trained on Lawlor. As Ike led Buck off, the soldiers all made moves toward their guns.
"I wouldn't if I were you!" Jimmy shouted. "We've got a gun on your Captain right now and he won't survive one more move by you."
"Do it gentlemen. We'll catch them later." Lawlor said as Kid tossed Jimmy the reins to his horse and the two galloped off.
"We didn't know they were planning this. Them boys have minds of their own. And they're damned stubborn, too. They get an idea in their heads and we wouldn't have been able to talk them out of it, even if we had known." Teaspoon rubbed his face wearily, having covered this same statement, time and time again, with Captain Lawlor.
"Let us go after them. If anyone can convince them to give up it would be us." Sam added. "Those boys are just that. Boys. They think they're doing the noble thing. We may stand a chance of bringing them in, alive."
Lawlor looked at the two men, contemplating his next words. "Alright, but I'll be going with you. Lieutenant, you'll be in charge while I'm gone."
"But nothing. We'll leave in an hour. Gentlemen, I suggest you get ready." Sam and Teaspoon turned and left to get their horses.
They rode hard, not stopping to untie Buck, or even remove the hood and noose from around his neck. When they finally did stop, they had put numerous miles behind them. Buck could make out the sounds of other horses and someone approaching them at a run. He slid off his horse, his hands reaching up to pull off the hood as he heard Lou's voice.
"Is he alright?" she cried out.
"I'm fine," he answered for himself as he squinted against the sudden sunlight and looked around. Even as he stood there, Kid and Jimmy rode up.
"Do you realize what you've done?" he said somewhat angrily.
We've saved your life. Ike signed.
"And signed your own lives away! It's just a matter of time before the army is after us. How long do you think we can run from them?"
"Just long enough for the truth to come out." Kid said, walking past Buck toward an outcrop of rocks. Ike quickly untied his friend, and Buck followed him, pulling the noose from his neck as he went. Before he could continue the argument he stopped dead in his tracks. Sitting up against the rocks, hands and feet bound together, was Martin Slayden.
Buck dropped to the ground, mentally and physically exhausted. He accepted the canteen of water Lou handed him and tolerated Kid checking out the rope burn on his neck and the abrasions on his wrists from pulling against the ropes. He was going to have a bruise on his neck as well. His ribs ached, but he ignored the pain there.
"Sorry Buck." Cody said as he walked up to the group. "My aim was off just a hair. It didn't cut clean through the rope."
"I should be angry because your aim wasn't better. It missed my heart by a mile."
"Yeah, well I just couldn't do it."
He looked up at Cody, then around at the rest of his friends, his anger abating. "Thanks. All of you."
"You'd have done the same thing." Jimmy said as he sat down by the fire and looked over at Slayden. "Now we just need to find a way to prove your innocence to a judge." Slayden smirked at him.
"Didn't you try that already? I already told you that I killed the girl. The judge didn't believe you then, what makes you think he'll believe it now?"
"Because I've heard it for myself this time." The judge stepped from behind the rocks and into Slayden's view.
"Captain Lawlor, take this man into custody!" Lawlor, Teaspoon and Sam all emerged from behind the rocks, where they had been waiting with the judge.
"Wait a minute!" Buck exclaimed. "This was all planned?"
"It was Lawlor's idea." Sam answered him.
"Damn good one, too, if you ask me." Jimmy added.
"I told you, I believed you. We just couldn't come up with the evidence."
"Thank you. And thank you Judge. I can't believe you went along with this."
"You're friends have a way of convincing even a hard headed old man like myself." The riders all stood with grins on their faces as Lawlor went over and drug Slayden to his feet.
"Cody, why don't you help Lawlor take him back to the Fort. I think you're the only one who won't be immediately linked to Buck's escape."
"I'll get the rest of them cleared as soon as I get back there." The judge replied, walking over to the horse Kid retrieved for him. "I will be needing some testimonies at his trial, though. It'll be tomorrow. I think Rosemary's family has waited long enough for their justice. Give us a few hours to straighten everything out. Then it will be safe to come back."
"Would you mind if we came back in the morning?" Buck asked him. "I'm really in no hurry to go back there today. I could use a night out under the stars."
"I think I can understand that." The judge chuckled. "Just be there by nine AM. I'll need your testimony."
"I'll be there."
Cody came up behind him, draping his arm over Buck's shoulder.
"Now see, Buck, aren't you glad I aimed where I did?"
"About your aim, Cody." Buck said as he gingerly rubbed his neck. The others all broke into laughter.