Chapter 9: Waiting In The Shadow Of The Noose - Night 2
As night fell on the town of Dry Gulch, the sheriff stood in the open doorway to the jail. He had been trying to convince himself that what he was doing was the right move, but it just didnít sit well. He had dedicated most of his life to enforcing the law and had done so successfully and honestly. It was only as he began to notice himself slowing down that he began to think of retiring. Unfortunately, he hadnít saved much money Ė not that heíd ever made much.
He could still remember the night that Hank had approached him in the saloon. He, Fred and the bank manager had been relaxing when the liveryman came up. Taking a seat, Hank had slowly turned the conversation from the more general topics to the question of money and retiring. It turned out that the two older men had both discovered they didnít have quite enough to keep them and the deputy wanted a stake to start a new life. Hank had worked on them all night until they devised the plan.
It had taken three days to outline all the details of the plan. They would wait for some cowboys to come through town and then rob the bank. They would manufacture the proof they needed to charge them with robbery and then keep most of the money for themselves to be split four ways. The four of them would leave town, each heading in a different direction and then the cowboys would be released when the judge finally came.
Then this trio had ridden into Dry Gulch. They looked dangerous, but Hank had encouraged them to put the plan in motion. Some quick checking on the men had led the sheriff to the conclusion that they were carting some valuable cargo with them. The fact that the third man had stayed in their room the whole time only confirmed what the wires had told him. If nothing else, the four of them would take what the men were toting and sell it off.
Then, as the four of them had entered the bank, it had all gone wrong. They had just gotten the safe open when Hank had fired. Right then the sheriff had thought to arrest Hank, but knew he was in too deep. If he arrested Hank, others might suspect something was going on since theyíd been talking together so much. So he had listened to Hank.
The next morning they had gone to the hotel and arrested the men. In order to keep the trio safe, the sheriff was just going to arrest them. When he had ordered their bags taken, he hadnít thought much of it, but once the money was found and the man in black had announced it was Orin Travisí money, he had known exactly who the three were. And he knew he was in trouble.
Improvising the trial, he had, once more, taken Hankís suggestion and sentenced them to hang, confident that they would get out of town before word reached the other four peacekeepers. Then the one of the three had escaped.
He sighed heavily. Fred was convinced the man was dead. Dawn couldnít come soon enough for the sheriff. He just wanted to get out of town and forget this ever happened.
Silence reigned in the cell as the darkness grew.
The oppressive weight of the nightís shadows rested upon two men within, little more than an annoyance when compared to the burden of hopelessness and loss that consumed them.
Even the thought of the noose awaiting them come dawn and the dangerous, foolhardy plan they had devised could not long distract them from the depth of their sorrow.
"Weíre going to make it," Chris stated. He heard Ezraís snort of disbelief and frowned.
"And how would you know that, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked with a bitter and sarcastic edge to his voice. "Have you some heretofore untold precognitive ability you have been keeping hidden?"
Chris took a deep breath. He understood Ezraís reaction, he was fighting it himself, but if the were going to get through this - if they were going to succeed in their plan, they needed to believe they could do it. "Never known you to back down from a challenge when the odds were on your side, Ezra," he observed quietly.
Ezra propped himself up on his elbows and stared at the shadow within the shadows in disbelief. "Odds in our favor?" he asked, incredulous.
Chris smiled in the darkness. "I got a feeliní..." he said, allowing the rest of the thought to trail off into the night.
Ezra felt the corners of his mouth tug up into a grin. He had never known one of Chrisí feelings to be wrong. True, whilst in the midst of the event you may not see how he could be correct in assuming they would win, but, somehow, they always seemed to do just that. "Well, then," Ezra replied. "Itís as good as done."
Chris allowed his soft laughter to float across the cell as he heard Ezra once more lay on the cot. He had to admit, it had been a good bluff on his part. At least Ezra believed they stood a chance. The truth was, he believed that they would be exploring the mystery of death tomorrow in a very personal way.
A few minutes later, the sheriff walked in with a lit lantern. Clearing his throat, he said, "Thought you boys might want to write to someone and say goodbye. Course, Iíll have to read over the letters to check their content, but at least theyíll know what happened to ya." Receiving no response other than glares from the prisoners, the guilty sheriff cleared his throat, left the paper, pens, ink and light and left once more.
Chris and Ezra stared at the supplies for several minutes. Even if they did write to the others to let them know what happened, the truth wouldnít come out.
Looking over at his friend, Ezra saw the resolved set of Chrisí jaw and felt his own determination grow. If he hadnít believed in their ability to escape before, he did now. This latest offering was little more than an insult to two men who had already suffered unjustly. And it was the last insult they would take.
On the outskirt of town, three horses stopped while their riders conversed.
"I canít show my face in town so Iíll go check on Chris and Ezra," one said in hushed tones.
"You sure thatís wise?" A deep voice asked.
"Cells Ďre in back with windows facing the alley. Should be nice and dark by the time I get there. ĎSides Jísiah, Iíd like to make sure theyíre alright," the first voice replied.
"And Iíll take the saloon girls," said the third rider, a smile evident in his voice.
The other two chuckled and the one called Josiah replied, "Why am I not surprised?" Then, after a momentary pause, he continued, "Iíll see what I can find out from the folks around town, test the waters and see if things are as bad now as they were when you left."
The first rider nodded his head. "We meet up back here in two hours to figure out what weíre going to do. Agreed?" Affirmative answers were given by the other two riders. "Then letís ride."
Buck rode his horse slowly down the main street. It was just a little past dark and there were still a few people wandering about outside, some taking an evening stroll, some staring at the gallows that had been built. A shudder ran down his spine at the sight of two nooses hanging straight and still in the night. He had seen a number of hangings in his time, some ordered by the courts, some not. But the sight of the nooses waiting to receive his friends was a sight Wilmington knew he would be seeing in his nightmares.
Walking his horse past the offensive sight, he pulled up outside the saloon, dismounted and tied his horseís reins to the hitching post. Stretching his sore and tired body, he slowly made his way inside. Scanning the room, it wasnít long until one of the young ladies who worked there came over and introduced herself. With a smile and a compliment, Buck began his interrogation.
Josiah had circled around so he would apparently be coming into town from another direction. As he walked his horse down the street, he spotted Buckís mount already tied up outside the saloon.
Seeing lights still on in the hotel restaurant, he headed his horse in that direction. Halting his mount, he quickly got down, tied his own reins to the nearby hitching post and stretched his aching back. Hearing a satisfying pop and a crack, he took a deep breath and headed inside to find out what he might.
Vin waited just a few minutes longer. He had managed to secret his horse on the outskirts of the town and had been slowly making his way to the jail on foot. Currently, though, the sporadic cloud cover that had allowed him to move toward his target had failed. He would have to wait either for the clouds to once more diffuse the intense moonlight or for the man standing in the street to move.
After several minutes, the man moved and Vin resumed his journey, anxious to ensure his friends were alright.
Chris stretched and walked across the cell. He really didnít need anything on that side of the cell, but there was little else to do. He wasnít about to write the letter the sheriff wanted and Ezra seemed to be lost in thought. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his arms and stretched the length of his lean frame. He needed to make sure he was loose for tomorrow if their plan was to succeed. The two of them would need every ounce of speed, skill and cunning they had if they were to outwit the entire town and escape the noose.
"Would I had Vinís wit," Ezra said out of the blue.
Chris turned to him and frowned. "What?" he asked, baffled by the manís statement.
Ezra sat and smiled sadly up at Chris. "Vinís wit," he repeated. "It never seemed to matter the odds or the situation, he always had something to say to cut the tension and relax us all."
Chris smiled down at Ezra and nodded. "That he did," he agreed. He watched as the sorrow and guilt grew withing the Southerner. It was easy to read since it was filling his own heart and soul as well. Still, he didnít like seeing his friend in pain. "Did you know he came up with the plan that first day on how to get Buck out of bed?"
Ezra smiled and nodded his head. He had heard of the incident from Buck over one of their poker games. Ezra had been complaining about having to dress as a chanteuse and Buck offered up the story of Vin pretending to be Miss Blossomís husband in return. "He did have a unique way of dealing with any given situation," Ezra said. "And he could move so quietly it was almost spooky."
Chris nodded, happy to see the pain retreat from the emerald eyes. "That he did. If it werenít for the fact he always whistled and announced himself..."
Just then a multi-toned whistle sounded softly in the night followed by a very familiar if quiet, "Vin cominí in."
Both sets of eyes widened as Chris and Ezra paled slightly. Neither man was particularly superstitious, but to have been talking about Vin and then hear his voice. Neither man dared breathe for a moment, wondering if the shade of their dead friend had come to visit them.
"Hey, yíall in there?"
The whispered question had both men in the cell staring at the window with fear and trepidation. It wasnít until a very familiar face appeared that they once more felt the ability to move on their own. Rushing to the window, both men stared at their friend, not quite believing it was him.
Finally, Chris found his voice, "V... Vin?" he inquired. The apparition answered the question with a very familiar cocky grin.
"They said you were dead," Ezra whispered, at a loss to explain, even to himself, how he felt at the moment.
Vinís face fell slightly. "Iím sorry about that. I figured theyíd think I was missing. I..."
Chris smiled at him and held up his hand. "You did what you had to do," he deflected. "Did you bring the others."
Vinís grin was all the answer he needed. "Whatís the plan?"
Vinís face grew serious. "Donít have all the details yet. Buck and Jísiah are gathering information from the town. I came to see if yíall were alright."
"We have some information that might be of use to you in your endeavor," Ezra offered, thinking about what theyíd learned during their time in jail.
"Tell me," Vin prompted.
A grim-faced Buck approached the agreed upon spot. The news he had might be helpful, but things were not good. Relief flowed over him as he saw four men waiting and watching him approach. They would need everyone on this. He sure hoped Vin had a plan.
It was a much different pair of men the sheriff found upon his return. He looked closely, trying to figure out what was different. There wasnít anything overtly changed, but as the blondís eyes met his, Sheriff Johnson found himself swallowing in fear.
An intense fire burned within the depths of those eyes. A challenge flared as the corner of the mouth twitched upward and they seared his soul.
Sheriff Johnson swallowed hard. A shiver ran down his spine as the hand of doom caressed his soul. "You fellows done with those letters?" he asked, his voice quivering.
"Leave them," Chris growled, daring the man to contradict him.
The sheriff swallowed again and nodded before backing away from the cell and into the safer confines of the office area.
Watching the man leave, Ezra allowed a low chuckle to escape. "I see your people skills are as engaging as ever," he observed, shifting slightly and wincing as the still-healing cuts pulled.
Chris saw the wince of pain and frowned. Walking over, he crouched before Ezra. "Your back hurting again?" He saw the denial forming on Ezraís lips even as his eyes betrayed the truth. Reaching out he rested a hand on Ezraís knee. "Ezra," he began, waiting for the man to focus on him, "thereís no reason to hide your pain. You know it can prove deadly in a situation like this to go in without knowing the true strength of your men." He saw the acknowledgment in Standishís eyes and couldnít stop a grin. "Besides, when Nathan finds out about it, you know he wonít let you get away with it."
Ezra smiled and pretended to wince. "Really, Mr. Larabee. Must you? I do believe the noose is beginning to look more and more inviting," he complained, earning a quiet chuckle from Chris.
"Sit, Ezra," he instructed as he rose. "Iím going to give your back one last check." He smiled again as he heard the soft groan of protest from the gambler. Hope was a wonderful thing.
It was past midnight when five shadows infiltrated the quiet town. As they reached the main street, two of them broke off and headed toward the saloon. One other broke off and headed toward the livery. The final two made their way toward the jail.
Fred couldnít believe it. He had the money all but in his hand and now Susannah wanted nothing to do with him. "Címon Susannah!" he pleaded. "Tomorrow we can leave this place, buy our stake and live like weíve always wanted." Susannah shook her head and turned away. "Thereís a preacher in the next town over. We can get married..."
"Stop, Fred," she pleaded. "Youíre a sweet man, but I just donít see how this is ever going to work"
Fred reached out and wrapped his arms around the woman he loved. "I have the money..."
Susannah pushed out of his embrace. "And how did you get it?" she asked, her eyes accusing. "You think I donít know about your plan, about the way you set those men up?" Walking away, she turned her back on him, hiding the tears in her eyes, fighting the disappointment she felt over the man he had become. "Just go."
Fred felt his heart shatter. He hadnít thought he was doing anything that awful. It was just this one thing so that they could get a new start on life... Turning away from his love, he walked out the saloon door. He didnít have time to react as two men stepped out of the shadows, one gagging him, the other binding his hands then both leading him away.
Down the street, a single shadow knocked on the livery door in a particular pattern. It was opened a crack and light spilled through the opening. A few whispered words were exchanged and the shadow was welcomed into the light.
Twenty minutes later, another knock sounded on the livery door. Once more the door opened, this time admitting three shadowy forms, two of them carrying the third..
In the jail cell that had been their home for almost two days, the occupants waited impatiently. Soon the signal theyíd been waiting for sounded in the night. Both men moved stiffly toward the window, their long confinement, emotional turmoil and lack of movement having finally caught up with them. Peering outside, they saw not one, but two familiar faces.
A sound down the alleyway had both men outside looking in that direction and reaching for their weapons. After a few tense moments, they turned their attention back to their imprisoned companions.
Sensing time was short, Chris ordered, "Talk."
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