Chapter 10: Come The Dawn
The town, normally quiet at this time of day was abuzz with activity. People had come from quite a ways around to see the hanging. Wagons were parked throughout the town and the restaurants seemed full to overflowing.
The sheriff felt sickened by it all. Still, it was too late now. There could be no going back. He was already guilty of two murders, two more shouldnít matter.
Standing straighter, he nodded to the local boy who was bringing over the menís last meal. Fred should have been bringing it to them, but the deputy hadnít been seen since leaving the saloon late last night. That information had come from a very reluctant and somewhat upset Susannah.
In all actuality, the sheriff thought he should bring the food back, but he wasnít sure he could face those men again before he had to. The intense, knowing looks and confident attitudes shook him to the core. No, it was better to let the boy take the food back.
A few minutes after he had nodded the boy in to the back, the kid came out and headed off at a trot. Hank approached shortly after.
"No signof Fred?" he asked, his eyes scanning the town.
"None," the sheriff confirmed.
A cruel smile twisted Hankís lips as he said, "Too bad for him. More for us."
The sheriff looked away in disgust even as he wondered if Fred hadnít met the same fate as the Bank Manager. If there was one thing he knew for certain now, it was that Hank was evil, pure and simple. "Town folk are gathering," he observed looking to change the subject from the potential fate of the deputy.
"More Ďn usual in town," Hank agreed. Then turning his head toward the East, he smiled his vile smile one more time. "Reckon we should get Ďem ready to stretch," he said, clapping his hands and laughing slightly in glee.
The sheriff turned and spat, hoping to rid himself of the bad taste this whole thing left in his mouth. "Reckon so," he agreed.
Vin glanced down from the hayloft at JD. The young man was standing by the doors below, watching the town and waiting for the signal from the townís doctor that would indicate it was time for Vin to put their plan into motion.
It had been encouraging when the five peacekeepers had discovered that the majority of the town was on their side. It wasnít that they believed Chris, Ezra and Vin innocent of the charges it was just that they didnít want to be party to a lynching. Their town wasnít a bad town and they didnít want the reputation that went along with such things.
Buck stood in one of the windows on the upper floor of the saloon. Scanning the crowd below, he easily spotted Josiah and Nathan at their positions. Vin was still hidden behind the hayloft door of the livery, along with the deputy. He could just make out JDís figure in the partially opened lower door of the building.
Glancing over toward the jail, he saw Hank and the sheriff disappear inside. Things were about to get interesting.
Nathan looked over the crowd, scanning for potential problems. He had spotted Buck in the upper floor of the saloon earlier and JD peering out of the livery. The sheriff and the liveryman, Hank, had disappeared into the jail just a few minutes before.
It was just about time.
Josiah watched as the sheriff and the other man disappeared into the jail. Things were about to get really interesting. He just hoped everything came out in the end and no one got hurt.
Taking a moment, he said a quiet prayer.
In the jailís cell, the two bruised men ate heartily, knowing the only last this breakfast represented was their last meal as falsely accused men.
Chris looked over at the gambler and smiled.
"Is something amusing you, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked, his own lips twitching with a smile.
"Just thinking about how good it will feel to finally be out of here," Chris replied, taking another bite of eggs.
Pretending offense, Ezra huffed, "Well, I can assure you the company has been most exemplary and I canít imagine that you find fault with it."
Chrisí smile softened as he regarded his friend. "The company has been the only saving grace," he said sincerely, noting a slight coloring of Ezraís cheeks at the compliment. "The accommodations, however, leave everything to be desired."
Ezra grinned, flashing his gold tooth. "Indeed they have, Mr. Larabee." Then his face grew more serious as he stated, "I do believe, however, that our hosts are about to be fairly recompensed."
Chris picked up his coffee and moved it as if to toast Ezraís idea. "Indeed, Mr. Standish," he agreed.
"You boys about done?" Hank asked as he and the sheriff approached the cell.
The two men set down their breakfast things and stood. Ezra sent a withering look at the liveryman while Chris simply glared. "You seem awfully anxious to commit murder," Chris said coldly.
Ezra watched the sheriff blanch slightly even as the liveryman sneered.
"Whatís one or two more?" he asked coldly. "I donít care who I have to take out. Iím not spending another day in that livery with those stupid, smelly horses. Iím finally going to get a piece of the good life, and if it comes at the expense of yours, so be it."
Ezra felt his anger at such callousness grow exponentially. Only Chrisí hand coming to rest on his shoulder kept him from acting out and possibly ruining the plan. Doing his best to reign in his temper, Ezra shot his own glare at the over-confident man. If it werenít for the fact he refused to go out in public without a shirt, he would have shucked the manís borrowed clothes then and there.
Pulling his gun, the sheriff aimed it at the two men. "Both of you, backs against the wall over there," he ordered waving his gun toward one wall of the cell.
For a moment both men tensed, wondering if they would even be let out of the jail alive, but seeing the rope to bind their hands dangling from the liverymanís they did as the sheriff asked.
While the sheriff kept his gun on the two men, Hank set about tying their hands, taking special pleasure from the sight of the too-tight rope biting into their skin.
"Now out," the sheriff said, waiting for the prisoners to go before him. Chris and Ezra walked out of the cell. When they go to the outer office, they waited for Hank to open the front door before stepping out onto the boardwalk and then into the street.
As the two men walked proudly, defiantly, side by side, they could feel all the eyes of the town upon them. It didnít take them long to spy most of their friends, or the doctor and his wife. Vin was hidden from them, but they knew where he would be. They just had a little ways to go.
Climbing the stairs, the two men were positioned so their nooses hung directly in front of them. Ezra took one look at his and paled slightly. A small sound had him turning to face Chris. There was such a strength and faith in Larabeeís green eyes that Ezra could feel any doubts and fears abate. Turning forward once more, he stared coldly at the sheriff.
Clearing his throat, the sheriff began, "Chris Larson and Ezra Simmons, you have been found guilty of robbery and murder..."
Just then the hayloft door to the livery crashed open and Vinís voice echoed throughout the street declaring, "Thatís a lie!"
A gasp rose from the crowd, although most had known what would happen. Looking upward, they were treated to the spectacle of Vin Tanner standing in the loft door, holding a bound, but very much alive and unharmed, deputy in front of him. "Tell them what really happened, Deputy," he spat.
Fred licked his lips nervously. "It was Hankís idea," he began. His comments were cut off quickly, though, when a shot sounded and a bullet slammed into his heart. A second shot sounded a split second later.
Vin felt the body in his arms jerk back and then slump forward. Unfortunately, he couldnít hold onto the dead weight and the deputy slipped from his hands, falling to the ground.
Chaos reigned in the crowd for several seconds before Josiah and Nathan jumped onto the gallows and helped the sheriff calm the crowd.
A thin curl of smoke rose from the tip of the sheriffís gun as Josiah claimed it from the pliant fingers.
Chris was struggling to get down off the gallows and check on Ezra.
When the first shot was fired, Chris had seen everything. When the deputy had started his confession, Hank had pulled his gun and fired a killing shot. The sheriff had been just a split second too slow to save his deputy, but his aim had been true and heíd hit the liveryman dead center in the heart. The liverymanís dead body had been thrown backward into Ezra by the impact of the bullet and the two had been sent tumbling backward over the side of the scaffold.
Reaching the ground, Chris called out Ezraís name as he struggled to move the dead body off his friend. He was soon joined in his efforts by Nathan who quickly moved the body aside and then cut Chrisí hands free before leaning over to check on Ezra. He was so intent on checking the Southerner that he almost missed the sheriffís confession.
"Everyone, just calm down," the sheriff said as the voices died away. When silence reigned, he took a deep breath, unsure if he would be able to confess everything. Feeling a large hand fall on his shoulder, he turned to look into a pair of understanding blue eyes.
"Confession is good for the soul, brother," Josiah said softly.
The sheriff smiled and nodded. Turning to face the townsfolk once more, he cleared his throat. "These men are innocent," he declared. This drew a few gasps of shock from those gathered. When things had settled down, he continued, "They never robbed the bank. That was me, Fred and Hank. Hankís the one that shot the bank manager. These men were just passing through and we thought we could use them to get away with the money."
Josiah left his comforting hand on the sheriffís shoulder throughout, listening to the true anguish of the man as his voice faded to nothing. It wasnít the first time heíd seen a good man led astray by greed, but it still saddened his heart each time he witnessed it. Guiding the broken man down the stairs, the crowd followed them to the jail. Josiah would stand guard until someone else could be appointed to the task.
On the ground beside the gallows, Chris knelt by the unconscious Ezra, waiting for Nathanís diagnosis. "Well?" he demanded.
Nathan glanced up at the blond. "Looks like he just got the wind knocked out of him and he hit his head on the ground."
"What about his back?" the doctor asked, approaching the small group, black bag in hand.
"His back?" Nathan asked, puzzled.
"It was cut up in the brawl that gave us these bruises," Chris explained hurriedly.
Working to carefully roll Standish onto his side, Nathan lifted the shirt and cursed softly. "Stitches broke open on two of the wounds and theyíre bleeding again." Looking up to the elderly doctor, he asked, "Can we bring him to your place?"
The doctor nodded and led the way as Chris and Nathan lifted the still form and carried him.
Once at the Doctorís house, his wife came rushing in to assist. Though a brief and very polite battle of wills took place as both healers longed to use their gifts, Nathan and the Doctor soon found a rhythm to use and had Ezra re-stitched and bandaged in no time.
Unable to leave his friendís side Chris settled into the chair beside the bed. It wasnít until he felt Nathanís hands probing his own bruises that Chris realized heíd become another center of attention..
"Now donít you fuss at me, Chris Larabee," Nathan admonished. "Youíre the one that was in a brawl."
"You listen to him," the doctor chimed in, mixing something at a corner table.
Sighing in resignation, Chris allowed Nathan to check him over and tend to his scrapes and bruises, the whole while keeping watch over their still unconscious friend.
It was just as Chris was slipping his shirt on that Ezra showed signs of waking. Leaning forward, Chris smiled as the green eyes slowly opened and tried to figure out where their owner had landed this time. "Youíre at the doctorís," Larabee supplied gently.
Frowning at the man above him, Ezra could help wincing as the pain in his head made itself known along with the renewed pain in his back. "We didnít hang?" he asked.
Chris beamed at him. "Not by a long shot," he assured.
"Course, if you donít listen to what me and the Doc here say, we can change that," Nathan inserted as sternly he moved toward Ezra, though the words were softened by the brilliant smile on his face.
Trying to stifle a groan, Ezra opened his mouth to assure, "Iím perfectly fine, Mr. Jackson..." He was cut off by Chrisí unceremonious laughter.
"Not by a long shot, Ezra," Nathan said, his tone soft and warm as he once more checked his now conscious patient. He smiled a little broader when Ezra huffed his frustration but quietly submitted to the examination.
Later that night in the room where Ezraís been laid, two weary bodies rested, one on the bed, the other on a cot that had been brought in for the blond who insisted he was fine. The two men lay awake as the full impact of their stay in Dry Gulch began to reveal itself.
"Does it seem strange, Mr. Larabee, er, Chris," Ezra hastily amended as he felt the glare land on him, "that Iím more exhausted now than at any other point during our journey?"
"Thatís because itís over, Ezra," Chris replied softly. "Itís truly over. Weíve been cleared of all charges, no longer have a town trying to lynch us and we have all our friends watching over us."
"Mothering us," Ezra muttered, eliciting a soft chuckle from Chris. He smiled slightly as he thought on the time heíd spent with the gunslinger on the trail and in that horrid jail. Although the experience itself had been far from pleasant, it had been made bearable by the presence of his friend. As exhaustion lay an ever stronger claim upon his body, Ezra shifted on the bed, enjoying the feel of clean sheets and a soft mattress beneath him as his eyes drifted shut.
Chris laughed slightly at Ezraís comment. In a way they all seemed to watch over each other and got a little protective when one was injured, still, that was what families did, maybe he should let Ezra know that , the man sure didnít seem to have had much in the way of a good home life. "Ezra?" he asked softly after a few moments of silence, not wanting to talk too loudly for fear of waking the man even as his own eyes betrayed him by sliding shut and refusing to open.
"Hmm?" Ezra replied, his thoughts drifting and fading as he allowed his body to give in to its needs.
"They do it because weíre family," Chris explained softly as he drifted off.
Ezra felt a warmth run through him at Chrisí words, words of acceptance, words heíd never thought to hear. "Family," he repeated in a whisper as he drifted off into sleep.
Buck and Vin quietly closed the door to the patientsí room. They had stopped by to check on the men and caught some of the conversation.
Looking Buck in the eye, Vin asked, "You reckon Chris ís right about that?"
Buck just grinned, draped an arm across Vinís shoulders and said, "Letís get you back to your room at the hotel before you drop of exhaustion. I donít want to wear myself out carrying your scrawny frame back there. Did I tell you that I met the prettiest little thing earlier? Well..."
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