Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
“You hear me? We’re gonna be late!”
“Here we go again,” Ezra muttered as he finished tightening the loose cinch on Chaucer’s saddle and remounted. “Calm yourself, Mr. Jackson. We won’t lose more than a couple of minutes and I’m certain the good citizens of Red Rock will not soil their collective undergarments if we’re two minutes late in arriving there.”
“Two minutes? More like twenty,” Nathan growled. Checking his pocket watch, he said, “It’s half past eight already!”
“And we passed the halfway point of Miller’s Crossing almost thirty minutes ago,” he replied calmly. “I assure you, we’re on schedule.”
When a grouchy sounding mumble was the only response Ezra received, he simply shook his head and rode in silence, picking up the pace when Nathan nudged his own horse into a speedier gait.
As the miles passed, Ezra studied his moody travelling companion. He waited until Nathan’s tense posture relaxed into Blade’s easy rocking-chair stride, then spoke again.
“Mr. Jackson, might I inquire as to the reason behind your sudden need to reach the dilapidated and unappealing town of Red Rock as fast as humanly possible? I was under the impression that this journey had been undertaken for the purpose of giving testimony in relation to the bank robbery we witnessed during our last visit.” He raised an eyebrow as Nathan looked his way. “And the last time I checked, Judge Travis was not in the habit of dismissing a trial if all interested parties were not in attendance on the very tick of whatever hour he set for court to convene.”
“Just don’t want to see Caruthers get off ‘cause of the way you been lollygagging,” Nathan grunted.
Ezra straightened in his saddle, indignation fairly pouring off him. “Lollygagging!”
“We were almost an hour late in leaving this morning when you couldn’t get your lazy ass out of bed on time.”
“I was up,” he protested. “I just wasn’t fit to be seen yet.”
Nathan ignored him. “And when you finally finished primping, you made me wait again while you went over to the restaurant and had breakfast.”
Ezra’s eyes twinkled. “Most important meal of the day, so certain people tell me. Besides, I went to the livery first and you weren’t there.”
“I just went over to the telegraph office to make sure we hadn’t had another wire from the Judge,” Nathan snapped. “I wasn’t gone more than a couple of minutes.”
“Clearly, our synchronicity was awry. We still managed to make good time once we departed.”
Nathan scoffed, “No thanks to you and that damn pampered pony you ride. Just how many rest and water breaks does a horse need anyway?”
"Chaucer is accustomed to a certain level of consideration. I’m sure you would experience far fewer problems with Blade if you were to care for him in a similar fashion.”
“My horse and the way I take care of him are just fine. He’s just more used to hard work than Chaucer.” He snorted. “Like owner, like horse, I guess.”
Ezra smiled. “Indeed. I have always employed the motto, work smarter - not harder.”
“I believe that.”
A few seconds drifted by, then Ezra said, “You didn’t answer my question. What’s so important to you in Red Rock? I doubt very much that a bone-headed thief like Leo Caruthers will be lucky enough to avoid his just deserts, even if we were to somehow miss the trial. After all, there were a half-dozen other witnesses to his crime, and while he may have been smart enough to wear a hood and lucky enough to escape capture during the event in question, he was still stupid enough to use his own horse and then waltz back into town to try to spend his ill-gotten gains a mere two weeks after stealing them. I see no need to drive ourselves or our horses into a lather just to insure that the idiot goes to jail in a timely manner.”
“He ain’t stupid. Just thinks he’s better than everybody else. Probably never figured anyone would put two and two together.”
Ezra’s eyes narrowed as he put certain pieces together himself. “You know him.”
“He was in my unit during the war. Man was a thievin’ little weasel, even then. Caught him looking through other soldiers’ belongings a couple of times, takin’ what little they had. Rumor had it he’d even dipped into the payroll sack a few times, though nobody ever caught him red-handed.”
Ezra nodded. “I take it you reported his actions, to no avail.”
The black man grimaced. “Union might’ve been fighting to free the slaves, but that don’t mean a bunch of white men was gonna take the word of a slave over one of their own. Got me a beatin’ from my so-called comrades in arms for tryin’ to put a bad name on him. They said I must’ve been trying to cover up my own actions when money come up missin’. Lucky for me, I got appointed a stretcher bearer and transferred into a different unit only a couple weeks later.”
“And here we are, years later, with your petty camp thief having moved on to bigger, if not necessarily better, things,” Ezra concluded. “Did you recognize him at the time of the robbery?”
“Not at first,” Nathan admitted. “When he was in the bank, wearing that mask and wavin’ his gun at all of us, he could’ve been anybody. It was what he said when he was leavin’ that told me.”
Ezra frowned thoughtfully. “Hurrah?”
“Hoo-Rah, just like it was two separate words. It’s from that old war song, you know? The Union forever, hurrah boys hurrah?” Nathan clarified. Ezra nodded. “He was always sayin’ that. There was three of us ex-slaves in the camp and whenever Caruthers had got away with something he shouldn’t have done, he always pointed his fingers and took a pretend shot at one of us, just like he did to me that day in the bank, and he’d say, “Hoo-Rah . . . Boy.”
Ezra grimaced. “Bastard. I had wondered why you simply stood there gaping as he rode away, instead of taking a shot at him. Do you think he recognized you as well?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. He figured we all looked alike.”
Removing his hat, Ezra scrubbed agitated fingers through his hair. “Why on earth didn’t you say something? You must realize that I would never have intentionally caused any delay in our departure this morning had I known.”
A small smile lifted Nathan’s lips. “So now you admit you were doin’ it on purpose?”
Ezra flashed him an equally tiny smirk. “I said nothing of the sort. Just that I would have expedited my ablutions and requested a portable repast had I realized that there was a need for haste.”
Nathan looked embarrassed. “Sorry, Ezra. Guess I figured you wouldn’t be very understanding if I told you how things was.”
Irritation flashed across the gambler’s face. “Why? Because you and this man fought together against the Confederacy, or because you assumed I could feel nothing but sympathy towards a thief and a bigot.”
When Nathan did not immediately issue a protest, Ezra’s expression hardened and he kicked his horse into a fast gallop, leaving his companion in a cloud of dust.
“Damn it,” Nathan whispered.
Any desire to hold back their progress had vanished. It was now Ezra who set a punishing pace that got the two lawmen into Red Rock with a good half-hour to spare. Nathan had been given no chance to argue or apologize, barely able to keep up with Chaucer’s ground-eating stride and completely unable to break through Ezra’s disinclination toward speaking to him.
“Dang fool, stubborn cuss, contrary son of a bitch,” Nathan muttered as he watched Ezra dismount and flip a generous coin to the livery boy rather than stop long enough to unsaddle and curry his own mount, as was his custom.
Barely pausing long enough to glance over his image in the reflection of a store window and straighten his tie, Ezra hurried toward the jailhouse, not bothering to see if Nathan was keeping up. It was not until he reached the threshold of the small brick building that he stopped, his hand freezing a mere centimeter from the door handle and dropping back to his side.
Taking in a deep lungful of air and holding it for several seconds, Ezra turned in a slow and deliberate manner and allowed his companion to catch up to him. The corners of his mouth tilted upward in a pleasant, if not entirely sincere looking, smile as he said, “Forgive me, Mr. Jackson. I’m afraid I let my temper get the best of me back there. I had no right to grow angry with you over words that I myself had put in your mouth.”
Nathan recognized the all-too-familiar effort at getting their working relationship back on track while they still had a job to do. It had been this way between them since the first day he and Ezra had met. One of them would pop off and say something rude, thoughtless or bigoted – and Nathan was ashamed of how often he was on the giving end in those confrontations – and the other would graciously forgive the slight, each wondering all the while how truly the remarks had been meant.
“Not your fault, Ezra. I should have been quicker to think what kind of conclusion you’d draw from me saying you wouldn’t understand. All I meant was that I was afraid you’d tell me I was overreacting, trying to punish that man now for something that happened between us in the past. I wasn’t saying that you were like him.” He smiled ruefully. “The honest truth is, Caruthers ain’t good enough to spit shine your boots.”
Finally, Ezra’s stiff smile relaxed into a more natural expression as he read and accepted the sincerity of Nathan’s apology. “Nor yours. From the way you describe him, I believe Mr. Caruthers is long overdue for a reckoning with the law.” He gestured toward the closed office door. “After you, Mr. Jackson.”
Nathan breathed a soft sigh of relief that they’d managed to get through another misunderstanding with their touchy friendship still intact, and opened the door.
A middle-aged man with thinning brown hair and a handlebar mustache looked up at their entry. “Help you fellas?”
Noting the badge on his chest, Nathan reached into his pocket and pulled out the telegram requesting their presence at today’s trial. “Sheriff, I’m Nathan Jackson. This is Ezra Standish. We’re the law from Four Corners and Judge Travis sent us a summons to testify today.”
“Orville Merrill,” he introduced in reply, pulling out a pair of spectacles and reading over the message. “Been expecting you. The other witnesses have all been gathered over at the courthouse so Martin can prepare their testimony.”
“I take it Mr. Martin is the prosecuting attorney for today’s proceedings?” Ezra said, his lazy drawl earning him a startled look from the lawman. “Is something wrong?”
The sheriff grinned. “Nope. Just that I’ve had Caruthers in jail a week now, forced to listen to him rant and rave. Man’s got a real ax to grind against anybody from the south, Negroes in particular, so it just gives me a pleasure to know that you two are here to testify agin him.”
Ezra smirked. “Believe me, Mr. Merrill, the pleasure is ours. Can you direct us to the courthouse so we may begin our civic duties?”
“Cross the street, third door on the left. My deputy took the prisoner over about fifteen minutes ago, so I don’t expect it’ll be too long before the trial starts.”
“Thanks,” Nathan told him, nodding as he and Ezra took their leave.
Ezra studied his friend as they took their places on the bench seats set up for spectators in the courtroom. Angus Martin, the prosecutor, had been keenly interested in Nathan's information concerning why he had recognized Caruthers as the bank robber that day, assuring him that he would indeed be called upon to testify. "Are you certain you're ready for this?"
Surprised, Nathan said, "Why wouldn't I be?"
One red-coated shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Confronting a piece of one's past, particularly an unpleasant piece, can be difficult. Or, at the very least, emotional. You'll need to maintain an attitude of calm if you don't wish your testimony to be disregarded."
Straightening his spine, Nathan glared down at his shorter companion in an instinctive effort to intimidate. Ezra returned the stare with perfect equanimity. Nathan folded first. "You're right. This ain't about me, it's about seeing right done by the law and the people of this town."
A few minutes later, the courtroom was half-full and the attorneys had taken their places. Ezra craned his neck to see the defendant, who was being led to a seat next to his lawyer.
Plainly dressed in brown pants and a blue homespun shirt, Caruthers was of medium height and build, with wavy reddish brown hair and pale, heavy-lidded eyes. He also had dimples that creased into deeper lines as he looked over the gathered spectators and smirked. Ezra kept his mouth from gaping open only by sheer will power as he looked from the defendant to Nathan and back again, understanding now why his friend had instinctively assumed that he would feel sympathetic toward the miscreant. Physically, Ezra Standish and Leo Caruthers could have been brothers.
The trial progressed quickly throughout the afternoon, but the first few witnesses to take the stand were all unable to state with absolute proof that the masked robber who had threatened them had been Leo Caruthers. More than one witness pointed out the tall dappled gray mare used in the getaway as being Caruthers’ horse, but they could not prove that the man was lying when he claimed that an unknown assailant had stolen his horse the day of the robbery, leaving it outside of town where he had found the animal later. The man’s sudden increase in wealth had been attributed to a lucky round at the gambling tables in nearby Four Corners.
Ezra, who had been watching the trial in disgust, perked up at that last bit of information. When he was called to the witness stand to give his account of the robbery, Ezra smiled and walked forward with confidence, swearing his oath to tell the truth with a certain amount of pleasure.
“Mr. Standish,” the prosecutor began. “Can you tell us what happened on the day in question?”
“My colleague Mr. Jackson and I were on our way home from delivering a convicted felon to the authorities at Yuma territorial prison, and had decided to stop overnight in Red Rock.”
The attorney held up a hand. “Please clarify for the court, you and Mr. Jackson are law officers?”
“That is correct. We hold no official constabulatory titles, but we and five other men have been employed as peacekeepers in the town of Four Corners for the past two years, appointed to the position by the Honorable Judge Orin Travis.”
The judge gave a nod, though his bland expression did not change one whit.
“Thank you, Mr. Standish. Please continue.”
“Mr. Jackson and I were on our way to dine when I requested a moment at the bank to transfer some funds from my account in Four Corners, intending to while away that evening at the poker tables. You see, in addition to my peacekeeping duties I also hold the honor of being the professional gambler in residence within that fair town.”
The attorney looked displeased by this unexpected embellishment, but could tell by the murmur of interest Ezra’s comment had produced that he could not simply ignore it and expect the defense attorney to be equally accommodating. “A professional gambler as well as a lawman, that’s quite unusual, isn’t it?”
Ezra produced his most charming smile. “It keeps the games honest.”
The crowd laughed and Martin relaxed. “So, you had gone to the bank to withdraw some money. What happened next?”
“I had only just stepped up to the teller’s window when a hooded man entered the building, brandishing a firearm, with which he promised to shoot anyone who moved. The assailant threw a burlap sack at the teller nearest him and demanded all available funds be deposited into it. One of my fellow patrons stepped forward in an attempt to reason with the robber and was immediately fired upon. Fortunately Mr. Jackson, though not a professional physician, possesses significant knowledge of medicine and was able to get the bleeding stopped before any permanent harm could come to the other man.”
“What were you doing while this was going on?”
Ezra sighed with unfeigned disgust. “The moment the injured man went down, the assailant trained his weapon upon me and kept it there until such time as he had obtained his ill-gotten wealth and departed. I had no opportunity to attempt his capture.”
“And were you able to identify the assailant at any time?”
“Unfortunately, being a stranger in Red Rock, I was not able to identify him but I did take note of his peculiar behavior as he departed the bank.”
The attorney frowned. “Peculiar in what respect?”
“As I have stated, the robber kept his weapon trained upon my person until his departure. However, at that time, he took a moment to pause in his getaway and point his pistol at my colleague, feigning a shot and uttering the word, “Hurrah”.”
“And how did Mr. Jackson respond to this action?”
Ezra paused to consider the question. “He seemed startled, as I suppose any person would have been. Mr. Jackson finished binding the wounded man’s arm and was able to accompany me outside in time to observe the assailant galloping out of town. I was able to get off two shots in his direction but was too late to connect with either.”
Anticipating the defense attorney’s certain question, Martin asked, “As lawmen, did you and Mr. Jackson then effect pursuit?”
“We did not. Mr. Jackson and I deemed it more important to reenter the bank and ensure the well-being of our fellow patrons.”
“Were you aware that Sheriff Merrill and his deputy were out of town that day?”
Ezra shook his head. “No, sir. That does explain the timing of the robbery, but not having come to Red Rock through any official capacity, Mr. Jackson and I had no reason to be cognizant of the schedule of its lawmen.” A note of regret filling his soft southern drawl, he added, “In addition, our horses were boarded at the livery stable at the opposite end of town. The odds against our being able to catch up with a man who had a considerable head start, a presumed plan of escape and an advantageous familiarity with the surrounding countryside, were higher than we deemed reasonable.”
The attorney nodded, then reluctantly reiterated, “And at no time were you able to positively state that the man who robbed the Red Rock bank was the defendant, Leo Caruthers.”
Ezra looked him straight in the eye, hoping he would pick up the significance of the words as he stated, “I have never laid eyes on Leo Caruthers, before or since that day.”
Martin frowned, then suddenly his expression cleared as he got the message. “You’ve not seen him at any time, in spite of Mr. Caruthers’ claim that he was involved in a high-stakes poker game in the town of Four Corners, the same town where you live and work as a professional gambler?”
“Objection!” the defense attorney barked, realizing where this was going. “The witness cannot have been involved in every poker game played, or to be able to remember every opponent who sat across from him.”
“Sustained,” Travis ruled.
“No further questions,” Martin decided, giving Ezra a small nod of approval. The testimony might have been dismissed but that could not change the fact that the jury had heard and considered it.
The defense attorney dismissed Ezra quickly, and then Nathan was called.
Initially, Nathan’s testimony was almost the same as Ezra’s had been. It wasn’t until he had been asked if he was able to positively identify the robber that things changed. “Yes, sir, I can. It was Leo Caruthers.”
“How can you be certain?” Martin asked him. “You’ve stated, as have all the other witnesses, that the robber was masked.”
“That’s right, sir, he was, but when the man left the bank he pointed his gun at me and said, “Hoo-Rah”. Just like that. Hoo-Rah. It was at that time that I realized who he was because I’d witnessed Leo Caruthers doing and saying that exact same thing in the past.”
The defense attorney objected, saying the statement was irrelevant, but Judge Travis disagreed. “On the contrary, Mr. Horswill, I believe it may be entirely relevant.” He nodded to the prosecutor. “Continue.”
“In what capacity do you know the defendant, Mr. Jackson?”
Nathan sat up straighter and looked at the man on trial, seeing the hatred burning in his pale green eyes. “Him and me was in the war together, fightin’ for the Union. At the end of every successful battle, every card game he won, or every time he had any kind of victory at all, Caruthers would pretend to shoot at me or one of the other Negroes in camp and say, “Hoo-Rah”. It ain’t the sort of thing a man forgets.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. That will be all.”
The defense attorney, Horswill, did his best to shake Nathan’s certainty, but nothing would budge him. Nathan remained calm and stuck to his story. Finally, the Judge dismissed him from the stand.
“The hour is growing late so we will hold off beginning testimony for the defense until ten a.m.,” Judge Travis decided. “Members of the jury, you are dismissed. Deputy, please escort the defendant back to the jailhouse. Ladies and gentlemen, this court is in recess until tomorrow morning.”
As he gaveled the trial closed, everyone rose.
“Excellent job, my friend,” Ezra congratulated, clapping Nathan on the shoulder. “I believe the jury was most impressed with your collected retelling of the event.”
Nathan grinned. “Thanks. It wasn’t easy keeping my temper when they kept badgering me to go over the same events again and again.”
As he was being led past them by the deputy, Caruthers suddenly turned in his keeper’s grasp. He flashed a twisted grin at the two lawmen and shouted, “Must be nice having your own pet darkie, Cousin. What’d you have to promise him to make him tell all them lies about me, huh? Well, it ain’t gonna work this time, Ezra. These folks are too smart to fall for one of your stories!”
His loud cackle echoed back into the suddenly still courtroom as he was led away, and then a babble of conversation broke out. Everywhere, people were whispering and pointing at Ezra and Nathan, suspicious looks on their faces as they all suddenly remembered and commented upon the resemblance that Ezra had noticed with his first glimpse of the defendant.
Nathan grabbed Ezra by the arm and all but dragged him from the building, anger darkening his eyes. For a moment, Ezra struggled to free himself but finally he just picked up his pace and accompanied Nathan to the relative privacy of an alley behind the courthouse.
“My God, I must be ten kinds of fool not to have seen it,” Nathan snarled. “I guess you was just laughin’ up your sleeve this morning when I was apologizing for thinkin’ the worst of you.”
Green eyes as hard as flint, Ezra slapped away the hand still clutching at his upper arm. “No, I was not, but clearly I was too quick to accept that apology, for it’s obvious now that you didn’t mean a word of it. Can you honestly believe that I would have kept information like that a secret?”
Skepticism clear in his tone, Nathan said, “You sayin’ it ain’t true?”
“I’m saying that two hours ago you were utterly convinced that Leo Caruthers was a lying sack of horse manure with a talent for twisting the truth to his own advantage. Now he tells one very public falsehood and you suddenly believe him to be a paragon of honest virtue, while I am nothing but a conman who has been using you for my own amusement!”
“He called you by name.”
Fighting the urge to smack his comrade upside the head, Ezra shouted, “He heard me called to testify, by name, not more than thirty minutes ago! You said it yourself this morning, Nathan. The man isn’t stupid, he just believes himself to be smarter than everyone else. He noted our physical resemblance and saw an opportunity to exploit it.” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “Frankly, in another time and place I would have to admire the sheer gall of the man. That was a brilliant move on his part, for now every person in that courtroom is going to start doubting the veracity of our testimony. Even if I tell them that Caruthers and I are in no way related, even if some of them believe me, it’s still going to be my word against his.”
“And if anyone knows about your past as a conman, which we both know is possible, it’s one guess which one of you the folks are going to believe,” Nathan concluded. He sagged against the building with a sigh. “You absolutely sure you two ain’t related?”
The fire had gone out of him. Seeing this, Ezra joined him in his defeated slouch. “I do have more aunts, uncles and cousins than any human being should rightfully possess, so I suppose it is possible, but the odds are sorely against it. And really, it isn’t as though the resemblance is so pronounced that anyone might mistake us for one another.”
"Folks are bound to know he was just blowin’ hot air.”
“You didn’t,” Ezra reminded him sadly. The unspoken addition, ‘and you should have’ hung in the air between them.
With a deep sigh, the healer nodded.
"Is he the reason?"
Nathan looked at him, confusion in his eyes. "The reason for what?"
Looking uncomfortable but determined, Ezra pressed on. "I've noticed that you become both agitated and suspicious toward me whenever reminders of your past as a slave come calling. I've always assumed that it had to do with our shared southern heritage, and my own unseemly behavior toward you at our first meeting. Now that I've met your former comrade-in-arms, I can't help but wonder if you're also seeing the northern soldier who did you wrong whenever you look at me."
Startled by the idea, Nathan gave it a moment of serious consideration. "I don't know," he admitted finally. "To tell the truth, I hadn't even thought about that man for years. If I was holding you to blame for his actions, I wasn't doing it on purpose."
Ezra offered him a weak smile. "Are you saying all us white boys look alike?"
Nathan laughed, grateful that Ezra had once again extended their well-worn olive branch. Offering a subtle apology back, he said, “Not unless you suddenly get a whole lot more ugly."
To his relief, Ezra laughed as well. "Well, I guess we’d best go talk with Mr. Martin and the Judge and see if we can't find a way to salvage this wretched situation."
As the duo reached the door of Judge Travis’s private chamber, they discovered that they would not have to go searching for the prosecutor. Angus Martin was ranting loudly within, his tone clear though the words were indistinct. The agitated voice went silent as they knocked, but the tomato-like color of the attorney’s face as he opened the door gave ample proof of his state of mind.
Judge Travis, by contrast, looked perfectly calm. He even evidenced a sense of humor when his gaze landed upon Ezra. “I had a feeling I’d be seeing you. It appears that I’m making a new career out of incarcerating members of your family.”
Ezra smirked. “I can see how you might think so, your honor, however the claim made a short while ago in your courtroom was a false one.”
Travis raised an eyebrow, silently encouraging an explanation.
“They’re strangers, Judge,” Nathan cut in, wanting to show his belated support of his friend. “I knew that man back in the war but Ezra never laid eyes on him until today.”
“Which doesn’t preclude the possibility of their being related,” Martin pointed out, slightly calmer now, eager to believe that his case had not been blown apart. “I have a few family members myself that I’ve never met.”
Ezra nodded. “You have a point. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to prove that what I’m saying is the truth. All I can offer is my most solemn word that it is.”
The prosecutor sighed. “So it’s your word against his, and if I know Dennis Horswill, he’s already encouraging his client to elaborate on that statement in order to cast doubt upon your and Mr. Jackson’s testimony.” Seeing the Judge’s expression harden, he hastily added, “Not that I’m accusing him of deliberate wrongdoing. He probably hasn’t considered that the claim may be a lie.”
“So, get Ezra to take the stand again and just ask him,” Nathan suggested. “He’s already under oath, so folks are sure to know he’s the one tellin’ the truth.”
The judge, Ezra and Martin all smiled a bit at the casual faith that he demonstrated in the workings of the justice system.
“You remind me of your father, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra stated respectfully. “He believed that once a man got to have his day in court, the truth would out, no matter what obstacles arose to stop it. You have his same charming idealism in the purity of legal procedure.”
Suspecting that he was being made fun of, but unwilling to start another fight over a possible misunderstanding, Nathan insisted, “It’s the only way. Folks got to know the right of it.”
“I believe Mr. Jackson is correct,” the Judge stated, surprising them all. “And the best way to disprove a convenient lie is to make the liar support his story.”
Nathan and Ezra dined quietly together at the restaurant attached to their hotel after leaving the judge’s chamber, then split up to indulge their own preferred diversions, Nathan holing up in his hotel room with a book and Ezra venturing out to find a poker game.
The gambler did not lack for opponents, but everyone who sat down at his table seemed more interested in grilling Ezra on his purported family relationship than they were in cards. Ezra calmly and insistently denied any such connection, but even though the distraction of his opponents was proving lucrative, his taste for company was utterly squashed before the first hour was out. After only a second hour at the table, he excused himself and retired early.
The following morning, the excited murmuring of the large crowd gathered inside the courtroom gave proof that word of Caruthers’ claim had only spread as time passed.
“How’d you sleep?” Nathan asked with a hint of sarcasm as the gambler took his place in the gallery, clean, shaved and neatly dressed in his dark green coat and matching cravat, but still looking as if the ten o’clock court time had come far too early.
“Didn’t, much,” he replied shortly, surprising Nathan. “I played solitaire until three in the morning, then spent the remainder of the night tossing and turning until slumber was finally achieved somewhere around dawn. I just couldn’t seem to get comfortable. The local atmosphere, I suspect.”
Nathan nodded. Red Rock obviously didn’t get the excitement of a trial very often. Its citizens had all taken a keen interest in the proceedings and the pointing and whispering that had started the moment Ezra walked inside the room had to be agitating, even though the man still managed to look as calm as a windless mill-pond.
Everyone stood and settled into silence as Judge Travis entered the courtroom and took his place, calling the trial to order once more. He eyed the crowd solemnly. “It has been brought to my attention that aspersions have been cast upon the testimony of one of the prosecution’s witnesses. This is a very serious matter, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t take the accusation of perjury lightly. Therefore I am going to dispense with the normal rules of court conduct and ask that both the accuser and the accused step forward and be questioned. Mr. Standish, Mr. Caruthers, please approach the bench.
Ezra rose and took his indicated place, while Caruthers, smirking like he’d already won the day, did the same. The crowd whispered anew as the two men stood side by side, facing them at the judge’s directive. From his seat, Nathan barely denied the urge to whistle in disbelief. Same height, weight and body type, same ginger colored hair, both with green eyes – though Ezra’s were a couple of shades paler – square jaws and similar dimples. Ezra had been correct when he stated that a person could easily tell them apart, Caruthers eyes were narrower and colder, his nose little more than a squashed lump where someone had broken it for him, and his mouth wide and ugly when he flashed a crooked-toothed grin at the crowd, but the resemblance between the two men simply could not be denied.
“Mr. Caruthers,” Attorney Martin began. “You claim that Ezra Standish is your cousin and that he lied on the stand yesterday when claiming to have never laid eyes on you before. That he’s trying to set you up out of some sort of personal vendetta.”
“Yup,” the man said simply.
Martin turned to Ezra. “Mr. Standish, you stand by your testimony and claim that the two of you are in no way related and also complete strangers.”
“I do, sir. While I cannot deny the coincidence of our coloring and general appearance, we are not relatives.”
The judge interrupted. “Then the burden of proof falls to you, Mr. Caruthers. Under what circumstance do you claim to have made the acquaintance of this man in the past?”
“My mama and his are sisters, Judge,” the man said calmly. “Though I ain’t proud of that. His ma run off with some good ol’ boy and whelped a whole passel of half-breed bastards.”
“Half-breed?” the attorney clarified, frowning.
Caruthers sneered. “Northern and Southern. Hell, the bitch probably had most of her fun down in the slave quarters. Damn coons wouldn’t be allowed to turn her down.”
Seeing Ezra bristling at the slight, even though it wasn’t truly his mother being slurred, Travis ordered, “Keep a civil tone and watch your language, Mr. Caruthers, or I will hold you in contempt.”
The man grinned. “Sure, Judge. Anyhow, my cousin Ezra, he never could stick with the truth. Every summer he come a visiting and the lies just got bigger and uglier every year.” He leered at Ezra, openly enjoying himself.
“It sounds, good sir, as if our physical resemblance has caused you to confuse me with yourself,” Ezra replied. The gallery snickered, causing Caruthers grin to fade. Ezra eyed him coldly. “This is a simple enough matter to resolve. If you know so much about my mother, then tell me when she died.”
The man blinked, hesitated, then said, “Aw, I never been any good with dates. Can’t even say what year my own folks passed on.”
“Well, then perhaps you can tell me from what illness she perished. That is hardly a difficult thing to remember, is it?”
Reading something in Ezra’s tone, the man took a shot in the dark. “Weren’t no sickness at all. She had her a heart condition. Fell face first into her soup at the supper table one night, dead as a doornail.”
Ezra smiled. Ignoring the defendant, he turned to Judge Travis. “Your honor, I believe you’ve heard all that you need to.”
Realizing that he had guessed wrong, Caruthers scowled.
The judge addressed the other man, “Mr. Caruthers, before you attempt to ruin a man’s reputation, I suggest you learn a little bit more about him. Mr. Standish, the perjury charge is hereby dismissed. You may return to your seat.”
Nathan grinned widely as a confused babble broke out among the spectators. He suspected that while some were dismayed at how easily the juicy story of the previous day had been dismissed, most were simply upset that they didn’t understand why the judge had favored the witness over the defendant.
Completely unrepentant, Caruthers laughed. “Shit, it was worth a try!” He grabbed at Ezra’s arm. “So, what’d the bitch die of, anyway?”
Ezra wrenched his arm free, giving the man a look that should have incinerated him on the spot, and ignored the question as he moved back into the gallery and took his seat.
“It so happens,” the judge said, drawing all eyes back to him. “That Mr. Standish’s mother is very much alive, as I can personally attest, having made her acquaintance less than six months ago. Mr. Caruthers, I find you in contempt of court for foul language, of which you’ve already received warning, and attempting to compromise the integrity of this court. Sentence is 60 days in addition to any punishment this court may decide upon for the robbery and assault of which you stand accused, should the jury find you guilty of those crimes.”
“You can’t do that!” he bellowed, resisting Horswill’s attempt to steer him back to his seat.
Travis’s eyes narrowed. “Would you care to make it 90 days?”
The man subsided but the hatred in his eyes when he looked at the judge, then over his shoulder at Ezra and Nathan, was crystal clear.
The defense case was unusually short. With his client having so publicly damaged his own credibility, Dennis Horswill knew he was fighting an uphill battle and had Caruthers take the stand for only a short time, to tell for the record his story of having been camped outside Red Rock when his horse was stolen in the night. The man was ostensibly a resident of Red Rock, but had never been able to keep a job long enough to establish any real sense of home, which was both good and bad. It helped in the sense that none of the bank patrons, other than Nathan Jackson, had been able to easily recognize his voice or mannerisms. It had hurt because there was more natural suspicion, and less community sympathy, toward a drifter. There were no outside witnesses who could alibi the man’s location or swear to his good character.
As a result, the defense attorney was forced to rely on the most basic tenet of the United States court system, that a man was innocent unless he could be proved guilty.
“The fact that my client once employed the same phrase and mannerisms that the bank robber used in his departure on the day in question is a strange coincidence but it does not prove anything,” Horswill insisted to the jury. “Each and every one of the prosecution’s local witnesses has testified that they did not personally know my client and were unable to positively identify him as the perpetrator. The similarity of the horse used in the getaway, the fact that Mr. Caruthers came into a large sum of money in recent weeks, and even the fact that one of the witnesses happens to bear a personal grudge against my client for an alleged altercation in the past, pure coincidence. There has not been one scrap of hard irrefutable proof that my client is guilty. Gentlemen of the jury, I ask that you keep this in mind when making your decision. Don’t send an innocent man to prison simply because there is no one more convenient on hand to pay for the crime.”
“That was pretty good,” Nathan muttered to Ezra, crossing his arms and shifting uncomfortably on the hard wooden bench. “Think he convinced any of ‘em?”
Ezra’s shoulders moved up and down in a shallow shrug. “I doubt it. He didn’t manage to actually disprove any of the witness testimonies.”
Attorney Martin took his turn at a final summation. Facing the jury, he smiled. “Gentlemen, my fellow attorney is correct in his statement that much of this case has been built upon coincidence, but I ask you as reasonable citizens to consider just how many coincidences are necessary before a conclusion becomes inevitable. That a man’s horse, a very distinctive animal, would be stolen, used just for the purpose of one robbery, then conveniently abandoned just outside of town for his owner to reclaim. That this same man would come into the biggest poker win of his life a mere week later, and yet find himself utterly unmemorable to a professional gambler working in the same town. That the bank robber would utter the peculiar phrase, Hoo-Rah, and mime a gunshot at Mr. Jackson, when this witness remembers that exact behavior coming from this same man in another lifetime.” He pointed to Caruthers. “That’s three coincidences that, each by itself, strains the limits of my imagination. Put together, they’re irrefutable proof that Sheriff Merrill did indeed arrest the right man. All that is left now is for you men to do the right thing. Give this man, Leo Caruthers, just punishment for the fear, the pain and the hardships he has cost the good citizens of Red Rock. Find this man guilty as charged.”
“Now that . . . was good,” Ezra whispered, flashing Nathan a small grin.
Nathan merely nodded, too caught up in watching the faces of the jury members for signs of which way their votes would be cast.
Judge Travis addressed the jury. “Gentlemen, the case is in your hands. The sheriff will lead you to a private room where you may deliberate the decision.” He waited until all twelve of the jury members had left the room, then turned to the court. “We will recess until one o’clock. In the event that it takes the jury longer than that to reach its decision, notice will be posted and court will resume at such time as a verdict has been reached. Court is dismissed. Deputy, please escort the prisoner back to his cell.”
As they stood, joining the other citizens in filing out of the stuffy room, Nathan smiled at his friend. “Feel like getting some food? You didn’t eat much at supper last night and I don’t think you had time this mornin’. I’ll even buy.”
Ezra’s dimpled smile broke into view. “Who am I to refuse such a generous offer? Lead the way, sir.”
Nathan had been dubious when he heard Ezra order the quaintly named “Cowboy Combo” for lunch. It consisted of a large steak, beans, potatoes and gravy, two kinds of vegetables, bread and a slice of pie, plus unlimited coffee, and was easily the most expensive item on the menu of the small dining establishment. Having assumed that Ezra had only requested the generous feast because he didn’t have to pay for it, Nathan found his fascination increasing in opposition with the food disappearing from Ezra’s plate at a slow but steady rate.
“Guess you really did need to feed up,” he commented when the last scrap of bread had been used to clean the last drop of gravy from the plate, and Ezra’s greedy gaze fell upon the huge slab of apple pie that had just been placed before him.
Ezra blinked, and then looked sheepish as he glanced at the large plate that had gone from overflowing to containing nothing more than a discarded steak bone. “Last night’s dinner of lumpy stew and burnt bread held no comparison with this delightful repast. When we arrived here, I felt as though I hadn’t eaten in a week.”
“Pleasantly stuffed,” he replied, moving the pie plate in front of him, “with just enough room for dessert.”
Nathan addressed his own slice of pie and grinned. “Me too.”
“I thank you again for purchasing this fine meal.”
“Not a problem. Figure I owed you one.” Ezra looked at him in question and the healer shrugged. “You didn’t deserve putting up with my temper all day yesterday. I was in a bad mood because I figured Leo Caruthers would probably just sweet talk his way out of trouble, like he always did, and that anything I had to say was just gonna be dismissed as a grudge, and I was taking it out on you. That wasn’t fair.”
Looking surprised but gratified, Ezra smiled. “It was understandable. And though I wish I could say otherwise, we still don’t know that justice will prevail.” It was Nathan’s turn to look surprised, so Ezra elaborated. “Unfortunately, in spite of Mr. Martin’s eloquent speech, the evidence against Caruthers is almost entirely circumstantial. Though that story about the stolen horse is absurd, and I know for a fact that no such big-stakes poker game ever took place in Four Corners, there is still no positive proof that either of these tales is a fabrication. We know that they are, but there is still some question as to whether the local citizens selected for that jury will agree.”
Nathan looked dispiritedly at his dessert. “You’re right.”
Reaching out, Ezra poked at the hand holding the fork in mid-air. “Don’t let that lying cretin ruin your appetite, Mr. Jackson. We haven’t lost yet. I was just pointing out the possibility.”
For a moment, Nathan continued to frown, but then he heaved a sigh and shoveled in a generous bite of pie. “You’re right,” he garbled around it. “This is way too good to waste.”
Raising his own well-loaded fork, Ezra saluted him with it and popped the bite into his mouth.
“Gentlemen, have you reached a verdict?”
The foreman, an older man with a sparse comb-over hairstyle, stood. His voice was nervously loud, making several spectators laugh when he bellowed, “Yes, your honor!”
Travis maintained his calm expression. “On the charge of robbery of the 1st National Bank of Red Rock, how do you find?”
The man stood up straighter and announced, “We find the defendant guilty, your honor.”
Caruthers surged forward. “Barlow, you dirty son of a bitch! You’re gonna pay for that!”
Judge Travis pounded his gavel for order, casting a gimlet-eyed stare that had Dennis Horswill rushing to calm his client. Seeing that order had been restored, Travis turned back to the jury. “On the charge of assault and attempted murder of one James Buckman, citizen of Red Rock, on the day of the robbery, how do you find?”
The foreman looked a little uncertain. He scratched his balding head and admitted, “We had a little trouble making up our minds on that, your honor. From what the witnesses said, most of us reckon that the shooting might’ve been an accident ‘cause Jim moved forward so suddenly. We find the defendant innocent of the attempted murder charge.”
Though still far from pleased by the robbery verdict, a trace of smugness returned to Caruther’s face and he nodded.
“Very well,” Travis said. “The charge of assault is hereby dismissed. On the charge of armed robbery, I hereby sentence the defendant, Leopold Caruthers, to fifteen years in Yuma Territorial Prison, with the possibility of parole for good behavior after a period of eight years. Sentence to follow sixty days from today, following time served in the Red Rock jail for the existing contempt charge.”
“No!” Caruthers shouted. He tried and failed to wrestle free of the grip that his attorney and the sheriff’s deputy had taken on each of his arms. He twisted and fought, his wild, hate-filled green gaze shifting from the jury to the gallery where it fixed on Nathan and Ezra. “You lousy southern bastards, this is all your fault! I should’ve shot you both dead when I had the chance! I’ll get you for this!”
Travis again called for order. “Sheriff Merrill, take him away!” As the sheriff and deputy hauled the invective spewing defendant out of the courtroom, the judge pounded his gavel until the excitedly chattering crowd calmed. A wry smile lifted his lips and the spectators tittered in appreciation as he quipped, “So much for good behavior. Jury members, you are dismissed with the court’s thanks. Ladies and gentleman, this court stands adjourned.”
The babbling broke out again as the judge rose and left the courtroom. Ezra and Nathan went the opposite way from the crowd flowing out the back door and approached the prosecuting attorney. They each shook hands, then Ezra said, “You did a fine job, Mr. Martin.”
He smiled. “I couldn’t have done it without the two of you. It was your testimony that won the day.”
Nathan shrugged. “We only told the truth, sir. You think there’ll be any more trouble?”
Martin sighed. “No, Orville can hire on a couple of extra deputies until the contempt charge is served out and someone arrives to transport the prisoner to Yuma, but just the same, I won’t rest easy until he’s gone, and I expect the same is true for a lot of other people around here.”
Patting him on the arm, Nathan attempted to reassure the man. “Don’t worry, Mr. Martin. If Caruthers is still the same way as he was when I knew him, then all them threats was just hot air blowin’.”
Martin shook hands again. “I hope so, Mr. Jackson. I certainly hope so.” Shaking off his sour attitude, the attorney smiled. “So, I expect you’ll be heading home now.”
Before Nathan could answer, Ezra said, “I believe morning will be soon enough. Now that the excitement is over, I see no reason to deprive ourselves of one last evening of Red Rock hospitality.”
“He wants to go find some new suckers and a poker table, he means,” Nathan interjected. Then he grinned, “Or maybe he just can’t tear himself away from the possibility of dinner in that there restaurant of yours.”
Ezra rolled his eyes and the lawyer chuckled. “My Maisey does put on a mighty fine spread.”
“Your wife is the cook at that establishment?” Ezra clarified. He smiled. “Then you are indeed a lucky man.”
“Sure are,” Nathan agreed, both he and Ezra manfully resisting the urge to glance at the protruding bulge straining the buttons of Martin’s black vest.
The attorney smiled. “Don’t I know it? Well, gentlemen, I’ve still got paperwork to complete, so I’ll bid you a good afternoon and wish you a pleasant ride home tomorrow.”
They watched him leave, then, finding themselves the last people in the courtroom, relaxed.
“Feel better, Mr. Jackson?”
He nodded. “Yeah, but part of me wonders if I ought to. You heard all those threats.”
“I did,” Ezra agreed, “but I also heard Judge Travis say that it would be at least eight years, and more likely the full fifteen given Mr. Caruthers’ charming personality, before there would be any chance of his carrying out those threats.”
Nathan smiled. “Guess so.” As they turned to leave the building, he clapped Ezra on the shoulder. “Got room for another player at that poker game?”
“Always, my friend,” the gambler replied, gold tooth flashing as he gave the other man a wide shark-like grin. “Always.”
From the single, bar filled window of the Red Rock jail, Leo Caruthers watched his enemies walk down the street, laughing together. He felt his rage grow at the sight. He hadn’t recognized Private Jackson until the man had testified against him, but he could easily recognize him now. Jackson was still the same swaggering, holier than thou bastard who had tried to get him into trouble with their commanding officer back during the war.
Caruthers snorted. Just look at him! Carrying on in broad daylight like he was just as good as anybody else. Sickening . . .
Like many northerners, Caruthers had joined the Union army out of a desire to punish the south for seceding, rather than any liking or bleeding heart sympathy toward the slaves. As far as he was concerned, slaves were just living the lives they were meant for.
As his watched the two of them disappear into a saloon, his expression darkened. Jackson did not bother him near as much as that other feller. How could Standish, a lily white son of the south, take up with a former slave like they was the best of friends? The man should have had more respect for his own kind.
The fact that he and the southern man bore such a strong physical resemblance only made things worse. They looked like brothers, and there was something about the other man that suggested maybe he hadn’t always followed the straight and narrow. They should have been friends. Instead, Standish had not hesitated a single moment at sticking the knife in his back.
And now he was going to lose fifteen years of his life just because Jackson and his friend couldn’t keep their big molasses-drawlin’ mouths shut.
Caruthers glanced around the small cell, a smile slowly spreading across his face. Sixty days was a good long while, and Orville Merrill was hardly the toughest lawman he’d ever encountered. A jail-break shouldn’t take much effort.
Four Corners was really not so far away . . .