Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
The title comes from the film Citizen Kane:
No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece.
My life splits into two parts. The part before I lost my wife and son was pretty good. Spent a lot of years raisin' hell - drinkin', fightin', screwin' - then Sarah came along and bein' with her was all the excitement I wanted. Either way, they were good times. The part since has been bad. Hardly a day goes by when I don't wonder why I didn't come home insteada stayin' down in Mexico - still ain't got an answer to that one. Even so, past year or two's been better. Takin' care o' the town and findin' some friends has helped some made me feel I'm doin' somethin' worthwhile, I guess. Now it's all gone to blazes again but this time I don't even know what happened.
I've killed a lot o' men in my life. Back in the ol' days, it wasn't nothin' for a night out to end with a killin'. They were all men as rough as I was knew what they were doin'. Okay, may have been once or twice I coulda winged a youngster, 'stead o' takin' him out, but none of 'em was any better'an me. All changed after we got hitched: only killed three men in all the years I was with Sarah and they were fixin' to hurt my family. Made up for it since, stacked up a few bodies - brawls and such - and a lot more since we been mindin' the town. Don't reckon there was one among 'em worth a damn though.
But this is different. What we're talkin' about now is murder, no doubt about that. Trouble is, I don't remember a damned thing. So, here I sit - in jail - facin' the Judge to answer for it and I got nothin' to say. He's just asked me what happened. That's what I'd like to know. So that's what I tell him.
'I wish I knew. Sure, I argued with the fella that afternoon, if you could call it an argument. He'd been pesterin' Mary for a day or two, wouldn't take no for an answer, so I explained to him we don't stand for that in this town. Wasn't a big deal.'
He wants to know exactly what I said.
I think for a minute or so. 'I told him to back off. He said the lady could speak for herself so I said she already had. He asked me what business of mine it was - did I have a claim on her? I didn't see that was no business of his. He poked me with his finger so I grabbed him and asked if he wanted to be turned inside out, so to speak.' I look at the Judge. 'It wasn't a good day for me and I didn't like his attitude, to Mary or to me. If he'd took a beatin' and died by accident, I'd step right forward and say it probably was me. But, drunk or sober, I ain't ever shot an unarmed man an' I don't see why I'd start now. He wasn't worth the bother.'
The Judge asks if I saw him alive again.
'No. Not that I recall, at least.'
Asks me if I was drunk that night.
'Shot in the neck.'
Asks if I often get like that.
'Not often. Hardly ever that bad.'
Asks why I was in the livery stables.
'Got no idea.'
Asks what happened there.
'Don't know. I don't remember a thing after I left the saloon.'
Do I remember anyone drinkin' with me?
'Yeah. Buck stopped by for a beer, on his way to see Hetty Limbern. Vin had a shot or two later but I don't remember that so clear. I know Vin told me to ease up and I told him to go fuck himself.'
Do I usually address my friends in that manner?
'Maybe not quite like that. Reckon I musta been in bad shape 'cause he just gave that grin of his and let it go.'
Do I remember what I did when I left the saloon?
'Nothin' after I left the saloon.' I know the Judge ain't deaf or stupid. Partly he's tryin' to push me to say more and partly he's tryin' to help me remember somethin' else. Trouble is I can't and I don't.
Did I see anyone else?
Wants to know if I got anythin' to add.
'Not that I can think of.'
I can see he ain't too impressed with my story. I wouldn't be too impressed either.
I been friends with Chris for twelve years an' I see him kill a lotta men but I never seen him murder anyone. Been hard as hell watching him in that cell, pacing up an' down like a caged tiger. Didn't have no choice on that, whatever we think, 'cause the townsfolk are scared. Can't blame 'em - he's a good man but not a safe one.
There ain't a doubt in my mind he's innocent but the Judge needs more than my gut. I spent the past week going over that day, trying to pick out something that might help. Now the time for thinking's past.
The Judge wants to know if I saw the argument.
'No. I was outta town that afternoon. Came back around dusk.'
Asks if I saw the dead man at all that day.
'He was going into the hotel when I rode into town. Hotel people told us he ate there, took a few drinks at their bar an' went to his room early.'
Asks if I saw Chris that night.
'Yeah. Had a coupla beers in the saloon but I didn't stay around too long. I was seeing a lady.'
Judge gives me one of those looks of his. Guess he was too busy studying on being a judge when he was young to go after the fillies. Asks me when I left an' what state Chris was in.
'Bit before eight. Not so good, truth be told.' I ain't sure whether to say any more but then I do. 'It was Sarah's birthday. Gets him down. He was jus' remembering though, not doing no harm.'
Asks me if we always carry guns when we're sewed up.
'Don't make a habit of being that way.' That's the truth. Not sure about saying I wouldn't fancy trying to take Chris's gun off him. 'Like I say, he was jus' drinking quietly. Didn't seem a problem.'
Wants to know if I'm much of a drinker.
'I like a beer as much as the next man but put it this way, I wouldn't like to have to pass up an opportunity 'cause I wasn't fit.'
He's giving me that look again. Asks about the others.
'Not really. Ezra can get through a bit if he's a mind to but he stays sober when he's playing. Josiah and Nathan don't bother much. Vin an' JD only need to sniff an empty glass to get bright in the eye anyhow.'
Asks if I came back later to see how Chris was. Reckon he thinks I should have.
'No. Not sure I thought about it - I was feeling pretty good - but, if I had, I'da figured he was crashed out anyhow. I was with Hetty till sometime near eleven an' I wouldna thought Chris'd be upright by then.'
Wants to know if I saw anyone else when I took Hetty home?
Can't help smiling at that. 'Not that you'd know, Judge, but a man don't usually take a married woman home. We parted company outside the livery. Yeah, I see Nathan up the other end of the street. Didn't need to get no closer to know what he was thinking.'
Judge checks again: I left the livery around eleven an' it was empty an' quiet?
'Apart from the horses, yup. Went back to the hotel. Fell asleep near as soon as I hit the pillow. Next thing I knew was the shot.'
Hell, I'm nervous. Anyone'd think it was me in that cell. Always puts me on edge talkin' to folk with schooling like the Judge. I thought learnin' to read and write would help but, even now I know my letters, I'm still however many years behind a man like him.
Funny, I only known Chris a year or two but I'd stake my life on him. I don't see him puttin' a bullet in a man's back. Don't make no difference how much he'd had to drink.
Here's the Judge now. Wants to know if I see the argument.
'Yeah.' I think on it for a while 'cause I wasn't payin' much mind and I don't wanna get it wrong. 'Fella'd been in town three days. Took a shine to Mary right away, didn't make no secret of it. Day afore he was killed, I told him to back off when he wouldn't let her pass. Some fool 'cause he didn't let it be. Chris came down from his shack the next day and I know he see the fella bother her a couple more times while I was with him.'
That's my trouble. I get nervous, then I ramble, then I forget where I'm goin' with it. Oh yeah, the argument.
'Anyhow, that afternoon, Mary was headin' over to the telegraph office and the fella stopped her again. I heard him say "won't take no for an answer" and then "just supper". Looked like Mary turned him down but he didn't step aside. Chris went over and warned him off. That's all.'
I can see the Judge ain't satisfied with that. Wants to know if Chris's warnin' was the same as mine.
'Well, no, not exactly. I was just keepin' things movin'. Ain't the same thing with Chris and Mary.'
Maybe that wasn't the best thing to say. Judge asks if I'm sayin' I was doin' my job and Chris wasn't. Wants to know what Chris did and said.
'He stood real close to the fella, looked him in the eye and said somethin'. I couldn't hear what it was but it didn't take no smarts to get the gist of it. Even then, the fella didn't back off. Okay so we're not gonna shoot him for bein' a horse's ass but any one of us could whale the tar out of him without drawin' a gun. Who knows what he was thinkin'? Heard after he asked if Chris had any claim on Mary. Maybe that got Chris riled.'
Judge wants to know why that would rile Chris.
'None of the fella's business for starters. Chris don't like folk buttin' in on his affairs. None of us does.
'Sides, it didn't make no difference. Mary says no, that's good enough.'
He nods: don't guess he wants to see Mary pestered no more than Chris does - she was his son's wife when all's said and done. Still, it don't sit well that Chris was riled with this fella not twelve hours afore he was killed by Chris's gun. That ain't so easy to explain, even for a friend.
There I go again, wanderin' off on a track of my own. Judge wants to know if I see Chris that evenin'.
'Yeah. We had a few shots.'
Asks what time that was and what state Chris was in.
'Maybe around ten. I ain't one to dwell too much on the time.' I can't lie to the Judge so I go on. 'He was pretty far gone.'
Asks if he was violent.
'No, just low. Even if he had been violent, which he wasn't, I'da said he was well past doin' anythin' about it. Even if I wasn't as sure of him as I am, I'd be surprised if he could walk up to the fella, let alone shoot 'im on the move.'
Asks if Chris often gets like that.
'No. Matter of fact, I don't recall ever seein' him as bad as he was that night. He ain't a heavy drinker and he holds it well anyhow.'
Did I try to stop him drinkin' any more?
Am I sure?
'Yeah. I told him to take it easy but that was all.'
What was his response?
I ain't sure if I can repeat it to the Judge but in the end I do. 'Well he told me to go fuck myself.'
Wasn't I bothered by that?
'No. Like I said, he was pretty far gone. Anyhow, I never was one to lose no sleep over a harsh word.'
Asks if I'm much of a drinker.
'No. Don't hold it as well as some. Don't aim to get caught off guard neither.'
I know I don't need to spell that out to the Judge. I been lucky he turns a blind eye but he knows how things stand with me.
Did I see any of the others that night?
'Yeah. I see JD walk outta town with Casey maybe around six. They come past my wagon. Later I sat out on Main Street for a while and see Buck follow Hetty Limbern to the stables. He's been seein' her for a month or so, when her husband's out of town. Then, while I was drinkin' with Chris, I see Ezra playin' poker.'
Did I see the dead man after the argument.
'See him go back to the hotel around dusk. Not after that.'
Did I turn in after I left Chris?
'Not right away. I took a bit of a walk round town - often do afore I turn in. Was gonna look in on my horse but I could hear he wasn't alone so I left it.'
Did I see anyone else then?
'Like I say, I heard Buck leastways, I heard Hetty sayin' "Oh Buck", which I guess is much the same thing. No one else 'cept Josiah was sittin' on the church steps. I didn't pass that way 'cause he was already on the job but I see him. He often sits out last thing.'
So, it was a quiet night like any other?
'Yeah.' Quiet that makes me think for a second. 'No, wait, I did hear Chris again. I'd forgotten.'
'Yeah. He pissed on my wagon.'
How do I know it was him?
'He was talkin' to hisself. I was gonna tell him to go somewhere else but he was mutterin' about his wife so I let him be.' Things weren't such a mess, I'd have a word with Larabee about that.
Judge says he takes it that ain't Chris's normal way.
'Can't say I watch where he does it but he'd know better than to do it on my wagon.' That's the truth.
What time was it?
'Ain't so sure. Like I said, I ain't a one for dwellin' on the time and I'd been asleep. Probably after midnight. Heard him wander off, still mumblin' away. Seemed like I hardly got back to sleep afore I was woke up again, by the shot.'
This is not a situation in which I expected to find myself. The degree of anxiety I feel on Chris's behalf has proved as much of a surprise to me as I suspect it has to my companions. The combination of a public disagreement with the deceased, an indisputably large intake of alcohol and ownership of the murder weapon makes a strong case against our friend. However, while the testimony of our own eyes leaves no room to doubt his capacity for killing, we all struggle with the notion that he would shoot an unarmed man.
Of course, this makes for a difficult law enforcement situation. The fear shown by the townspeople is understandable but their antipathy to the investigation being carried out by ourselves was perhaps less expected. My own moral character may not bear close scrutiny but some among our number, particularly Josiah and Nathan, would never permit a friendship to impede the pursuit of justice. Nevertheless, the need for an investigation that not only is impartial but also appears so demanded outside intervention and I believe there is no one more fitted to the task than Judge Travis. I am sure his appointment was a relief to Mr Tanner, who surely would not welcome a federal marshal looking closely at members of our group.
So, I now face the Judge to give my account of the events of a week ago. He begins by asking whether I witnessed the dispute.
'I was on Main Street when it occurred. However, I was attempting to provide Mr Dunne with romantic advice at the time so my attention was elsewhere. It was not until voices were raised that we began to observe events. Even then, I did not hear what was said. The victim prodded Mr Larabee's chest with a finger - I remember thinking that unwise - and then Mr Larabee caught his wrist, leaned closer and said something in a low voice.'
The Judge suggests that what I witnessed was a threat, one that was made good that night.
'I would prefer to characterize it as a warning.'
I am asked to explain the difference in this context.
'I believe Mr Larabee informed the gentleman that he would be well advised to leave Mrs Travis alone, indicating that failure to do so would attract a penalty. I understand Mrs Travis denies seeing the victim again so, if the exchange was a warning, no action would have been required.'
The Judge asks my meaning in using the word 'penalty'.
'Most certainly not a bullet in the back. I have never seen any in our number resort to a gun to resolve a dispute with an unarmed man and Mr Larabee is fully capable of inflicting a painful deterrent without such recourse.'
There is a pause before the Judge points out that Chris was not capable of delivering such a remedy that night. Frustrated by incapacity, might he not have behaved out of character? I consider the suggestion without reply. The Judge moves on to ask if I saw the victim alive again.
'No. I understand that he spent the evening in the hotel. I certainly did not see him in the saloon.'
Did I see Chris later that day?
'Yes. I was playing poker in the saloon for the entire evening.'
Since I carry a timepiece, I am asked if I can confirm the times at which others of our number joined Chris.
'Not precisely - I do not check my pocketwatch each time I see an acquaintance - but I usually have a fair idea of the hour. It was definitely a little before eight when Mr Wilmington came in. I know that because Mr Jacobson had left our game two hands earlier and he invariably goes home for supper at half-past seven. I am less certain about Mr Tanner's arrival but estimate it to have been within a half-hour of ten o'clock.'
The Judge asks if Chris was drinking heavily.
I debate my answer briefly but see little point in embroidering the truth since I know that the more honest in our number will be candid in their replies. 'He drank continuously while I was in the saloon, which was from a little after six until around midnight. I myself saw him finish five glasses of beer and a bottle of whisky.'
Was that normal?
The question makes me smile. I would not regard five glasses of beer and a bottle of whisky normal but I assume the nub of the question is whether Chris is a heavy drinker. 'No. I would say it was unprecedented. I had not seen Mr Larabee inebriated until then. Following Mr Tanner's departure, he left the saloon briefly, presumably to answer the call of nature, and was having clear difficulty in standing, let alone walking. Inez was reluctant to serve him again when he returned but he was insistent.'
'No. Just insistent. Mr Larabee has a look with which few people are inclined to argue.'
The Judge asks if I had been drinking.
'I was playing cards in a saloon for six hours. It is customary to make purchases.'
Was I drunk?
'No. I believe I have been drunk three times since I came to Four Corners, on each occasion with what then appeared to me to be good reason. Ordinarily, I am a regular - but not heavy - drinker. Alcohol does not improve one's manual dexterity or mental agility and is therefore unprofitable.'
So I returned to the hotel shortly after midnight and Chris was still in the saloon?
Did I see anyone else?
'No. I passed Mr Tanner's wagon and heard him stir. Once back in the hotel, I passed Mr Wilmington's door and heard his snoring - he has a loud and distinctive snore that makes it difficult to understand how he manages to persuade so many ladies to share his accommodation.'
Reflecting on more squalid habits reminds me of something else. 'One moment. I did see Mr Larabee again - that had slipped my mind. When I went to my window to draw the drapes, I surveyed Main Street as is my custom and, in the moonlight, saw Mr Larabee beside Mr Tanner's wagon. His purpose was clear from his stance and I remember thinking that Mr Tanner would not be pleased, were he to wake. Curiously, considering the life he has led, he is himself remarkably fastidious in that regard.
'After that, I was dead to the world until the shot roused us all. My pocketwatch was open on the bedside table as usual and showed the time as ten minutes past two.'
I can't believe we're even going through this. There's no way Chris would shoot an unarmed man, no way he'd shoot anyone in the back. I keep thinking about when I met Raphael, that Spanish gunfighter. Chris said to me, 'He ain't gonna shoot me in the back.' He was so sure and the reason he was so sure was that they were two of a kind - it just ain't something men like that do.
I got no idea what I can say to help. I ain't seen nothing that explains how his gun got there or who else'd wanna kill this fella neither. Suppose the Judge has to ask us all anyhow. Here he comes now.
Wants to know if I saw the argument.
'Some of it. I was talking to Ezra at the time, leastways he was lecturing me on the sort of gifts a gentleman buys for a lady - stuff she don't want from what I could make out. We didn't notice what was going on till the dead fella shouted at Chris well, it wasn't exactly a shout but louder than talking. I remember being surprised. Chris ain't the kind of fella I'd be in a hurry to shout at.'
Did Chris threaten the man?
'Couldn't hear what he said. He leaned real close and talked real low. Guess when Chris does that, it ain't so much a threat as saying how it is.'
How do I think it was?
'Well the fella'd been hanging round Mrs Travis for a day or two. Vin already warned him off once so he was looking for trouble.'
Did I see Vin warn him off?
'Yeah. We was sitting outside the saloon, doing nothing much, and Mrs Travis came by on her way to the store. We all says good morning, like you do. She ain't gone six paces past us when this fella blocks the sidewalk and asks her to supper. I could tell from how Mrs Travis turned him down that it wasn't the first time and she was getting tired of it. Fella stood his ground. Vin didn't even look at him, just tipped his chair back like he does and said it sounded to him like the lady said no. Fella looked put out but let her go on her way.'
But when Chris warned him off the next day, it didn't go that smoothly, did it?
'Well, no, but then Vin had already done nice.'
So Chris was doing not-so-nice?
'Hell, the fella was upsetting Mrs Travis. What do you expect us to do - tell him to go right ahead?'
The Judge smiles and says no, he don't expect that. He just wants to know if Chris was warning the fella off same way any of us would or if there was more to it than that.
I think on that for a while. 'I ain't sure. I saw what Vin did a good bit better than I saw what Chris did.'
Fair enough, the Judge says. As much as he'd like to clear this up, I know he's always a one for the truth not for a quick answer. He moves on a bit, asks if I saw Chris that night.
'No, Casey and I was well, we was out walking.' I feel myself getting embarrassed and see a smile in the Judge's eyes even though he keeps it off his face. 'It was six months since I met her and she's got this thing for anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas Hell, you name it and I'm supposed to remember it. I wanted to get it right, 'cause she was going to relatives for a week an' I wanted her to be pleased with me afore she went. That's what the business with Ezra was about, 'cause he said I oughtta buy something but I knew she'd rather have the new fishing pole I'd made for her.' I know I'm gabbling and have to make an effort to get back on track. 'Anyhow, I didn't see Chris after about five.'
Had he been drinking then?
'Not much. He had half a beer in front of him and I'd guess there was one before that. That's nothing for Chris.'
Am I saying he's a heavy drinker?
'No, just that he holds his drink better'an any man I know when he does drink which ain't that often.'
Have I seen him drunk?
'Depends what you mean by drunk. I never seen him so he can't walk or nothing like that.'
Does he always carry a gun when he's drunk.
'Chris always carries a gun period. Ain't never been a problem.'
I don't say nothing to that. I don't believe Chris killed the fella but someone must've took his gun and they wouldna done that if he'd been sober. I don't know what to say.
I'm still thinking on that when the Judge asks if I'm much of a drinker.
That makes me laugh. 'No. Like I say, Chris holds his drink better'an any man I know. I hold it worse than just about any man I know.'
Judge asks if the others drink a lot.
I take my time on that one. Finally I say, and this is the truth, 'No, don't reckon they do. Josiah and Nathan ain't that kind of men. Buck always likes to be ready in case he gets a chance with a lady. Ezra don't drink much when he's gambling and he's always gambling. An' Vin minds his back all the time.'
The Judge nods. Reckon that tallies with what he's been hearing. Ain't so sure why he wants to know about the rest of us though. So, I was out of town all evening. What time did we return?
'Around ten. I took Casey home, we had a cup of cocoa, then I went to my room a bit before eleven I think.'
Did I see anyone else?
'Yeah. Vin was doing his last round, like he usually does. I saw him go to the livery, stand there a minute, then turn away. I figured Buck was in there - it's one of his regular spots when a lady don't wanna be seen with him at the hotel and Mrs Limbern is a married lady. I went on my way, didn't know no more till the shot woke me up.'
I wouldn't be surprised if I've put in more time praying this past week than in the past year. I'm not sure being accused of murder myself could be any worse than standing by while a friend goes through it. The thing that makes it hardest is that I feel I'm the only one who wonders if Chris did do it.
It's not that I think he did. Just that I'm not sure he didn't.
We're all hard men and Chris is the hardest. Who says any one of us wouldn't murder a man with the right provocation? The others can't get past the fact the victim was unarmed and shot in the back but those are just social conventions. When a man drinks, he doesn't always think about conventions: maybe he relieves himself in the street or makes a nuisance of himself with women. Maybe if a man drinks enough, he'd even shoot an unarmed man in the back. I don't know but I hope my doubts aren't too obvious to the Judge.
He asks me if I saw the disagreement that afternoon.
'No, I was working in the church.'
Did I see Chris that evening?
'Not to speak to. I was sitting on the church steps late on, well after midnight, when he left the saloon and headed down the street.'
Asks how he looked.
'Truth to say, he was full as a fresh-boiled owl.'
Asks if that's a regular thing.
'No, far from it. I'd say Chris is a steady drinker, regular but not heavy. I don't count the glasses but I don't recall ever seeing him look much the worse for it before.'
How about me? Am I much of a drinker?
I wonder why he wants to know but don't have a problem saying. 'No. Was a time, mind you. But these days I got no need for it. Just a beer or two with friends a couple of times a week.'
What about the others?
I think for a minute, not anxious to get anyone into trouble, but then realizing none of them are big drinkers. 'I'd say Nathan's the same as me, got no need for it. JD gets mellow after a glass and got the sense to realize it. Buck and Ezra have other vices to keep 'em busy. Vin's not a one for excess in anything.'
Getting back to Chris, the Judge is surprised I didn't see him home if he was in such bad shape. I guess it doesn't make me much of a Samaritan.
'I thought about it, figuring we'd probably find him lying somewhere on Main Street next morning. If it'd been anyone else, I probably would have but Chris isn't keen on folk interfering.'
Was I scared to intercept him?
'No. It's just I'm not a one for meddling where I'm not wanted. Chris wouldn't hurt a friend and, anyway, I'd take him on sober if I had to - the state he was in that night, no problem.'
Did I see any of the others?
'No, I was catching up on some reading. Oh, hang about. Yeah, I saw Vin doing his late check soon after I went outside for the air. Not sure of the time but way afore I saw Chris.'
Did I see the victim at all that day?
'Not until just before it happened. He came out of the hotel and walked down Main Street, purposefully now I come to think on it. Suppose it was odd but then I was still up, thinking on what I'd been reading.'
So was I sitting outside the church when the shot was fired?
'Matter of fact, I'd just gone inside. Could only have been a minute or two. I went through to my room out back, took off my boots and gunbelt, then heard it.'
It's been a hell of a week, with all this talk of murder takin' me back to when my father was on trial. I keep expectin' Chris to turn round and say he did it after all, just like my Daddy. Course, I know that ain't gonna happen. There's no way Chris'd kill an unarmed man and there's an end to it.
Can't see he'd have no reason to anyway - so, he argued with the fella don't mean he wanted to kill him. Chris can be a mighty vengeful man but we only ever seen it over one thing: the murder of his family. When Sarah's Pa showed up, Chris helped him outta obligation to kin but he wasn't blind to justice even then. I remember how Mrs Nichols said there was no excuse for Hank killin' her boy, even if he was sick in the head, and Chris said no, there wasn't. He just ain't a man who kills someone over a few harsh words.
So, here we go. Judge Travis is a fair man and I reckon he'll get to the bottom of it if anyone can. He starts by askin' if I saw the argument.
'Yeah. I was on my way back to my office after makin' a housecall at the hotel. I stopped to talk to Yosemite and he'd only just headed back for the stables when it started. I couldna been more than twenty paces away. It was over the fella botherin' Mary. It had been goin' on a day or two and I reckon we'd all seen she wasn't happy about it. You know how it is: once or twice is flatterin' but eight or ten times gets creepy.'
The Judge asks what exactly happened.
'The fella asked Mary out, said he wouldn't take no for an answer and that he just wanted some pretty company over supper. She told him she'd really rather not, polite but firm. He stood in her way and said he thought she was makin' a mistake. Chris was playin' checkers outside the saloon. He went over to the fella and said it was him that was makin' a mistake, that he should leave the lady alone. Fella said Mary could speak for herself and Chris said she already had, a dozen times. Fella asked if Chris had any claim on Mary. Chris stepped real close and asked if he wanted his balls pulled out through his mouth. Fella didn't back down, told Chris to butt out of what didn't concern him. Truth is, I never seen anyone do that afore and I think Chris was as surprised as me. He just put his head on one side like he does, gave a mean grin and said "don't say you ain't been warned".'
So he threatened the man?
'Well, yeah. But then it ain't as if you found the fella with his well, you know what I mean. Chris was threat'nin' to give him a beatin' if it didn't stop and that ain't what happened. 'Sides, if Mary didn't see the fella again after that like she says, there wouldna been no need for Chris to do anythin'.'
Did I see the fella alive again.
Did I see Chris again that day?
'I played a hand or two with Ezra around nine. I remember we said Chris was lookin' rough but I didn't go over. I was only in there an hour or less, then went back to my room. I ain't much of a drinker and I ain't likely to win much against Ezra so there was nothin' to keep me there.'
Did I see any of the others that evenin'?
I take a minute on that one 'cause I ain't thought about it up to now. 'Took a walk afore turnin' in. Reckon that was bit either side of eleven. See Vin then Buck but I didn't speak to neither of them.'
What were they doin'?
Now there's a question! I give a bit of a grin. 'Buck was comin' out of the stables with Hetty Limbern - don't reckon you need me to tell you what he was doin' there. And Vin was takin' a leak, out beyond the haystore, 'bout to go back to his wagon I guess. Wouldna known he was there if the moon hadn't been so bright.'
Judge says the haystore's well out of town, ain't it?
'Yeah. I seen him out there afore though. Vin's considerate like that - and private too - you won't find him behind the saloon like Buck.'
Would I say our movements are predictable?
'Not exactly predictable but I guess there's a pattern of sorts. Vin's usually up with the sun so he ain't that late turnin' in. Me, Josiah and JD mostly run pretty much in line with the townsfolk. Chris, Buck and Ezra are the late ones, especially Ezra. Bit different that night, with Buck and Ezra turned in early and Josiah up late.'
But otherwise a normal night?
'Yeah. Till the gunshot at two-fifteen.'
Judge asks how I can be so sure of the time.
'I'd been awake for a while. I lost a patient a couple of weeks back and it's been preyin' on my mind the feelin' I shoulda done better. Ain't been sleepin' so good and it was the same thing that night: couple of hours then woke up. I was lookin' out the window a bit afore two and saw Hetty walkin' - figured her conscience was givin' her guilt too, over the thing with Buck. She's a nice woman and I don't reckon it sits so easy with her.'
FROM THE JUDGE
My job is to think, not to feel, but these past few days
When my daughter-in-law wired me to come, I could scarcely believe her story. I know Larabee's a hard man but I would not have given him charge of law in this town if I thought he'd shoot an unarmed man in the back. Questioning the townsfolk, I found they all agreed on two things: Larabee argued with the deceased over Mary that day and he was falling down drunk that night. That made me uneasy, finding that my own kin is implicated and that men whom I appointed to watch over this town may be rolling around armed and drunk of a night.
I debated then whether I ought to bring in someone who could be more objective. The only thing that stopped me was worry over young Tanner: he's a good man and I wouldn't want to be the one to get him hanged down in Tascosa. That's not something a judge should be thinking either. Maybe I am getting too old for this job.
In the end, it was the testimony of Larabee's friends that convinced me of his innocence. I feared they might cover for him but I've sat watching as, one after another, they gave me every detail they could recall - good and bad. Such men don't like telling their business but they answered all my questions, even when they couldn't follow my reasoning. Their stories matched in every aspect, even on the unexpected like their drinking habits.
Over and over, I've seen the same incredulous expressions on their faces. Only the preacher has even contemplated the idea of Larabee being guilty but, like my own, his uncertainty seems to arise more from the disillusionment of age than from doubts about Larabee's character.
What has troubled me most is what I haven't heard. I can see why Larabee might be in the livery: if Tanner's wagon served as a latrine, an empty stall with fresh straw could easily serve as a bed. But why would a visitor, who arrived by stage and did not own a horse, be in the livery in the early hours of the morning?
It was not until Jackson mentioned Mrs Limbern's late night stroll that the pieces fell into place. Frustrated by his failure with Mary, it seemed only too plausible that the deceased might have formulated a new scheme but I do not know whether it was with or without the lady's consent. It is hard for me to believe that, after spending three hours in the livery with Wilmington that evening, she so quickly returned for another assignation. It is in the hope of compelling her to relate her story in full that I have invited all seven men to sit in on her interview.
I'm waiting for Judge Travis to call me in. He's been interviewing the men who watch over our town, trying to find out how a visitor came to be murdered in the livery stables last week. I wonder how much he has found out what they are going to do. Everyone in town thinks Mr Larabee killed the visitor. I know the truth but I can't speak out. The judge calls for me to go in.
Oh, my Lord. All seven of them are here. I thought this would be a private interview. I can see that they are as surprised by my presence as I am by theirs. Buck looks confused, as well he might. Mr Larabee is clearly puzzled. I believe he has no memory of that night.
The Judge asks me to sit down.
He tells me he is certain that Mr Larabee did not murder the dead man. I can see the men are all surprised that he has been convinced, so none of them can have told him what happened. How could they know?
Then he tells me that he is equally certain that a jury will convict Mr Larabee for the crime, given that he cannot account for his actions and the circumstantial evidence is so strong. He asks me if that is what I want.
'Of course not. They have all done so much for this town. Why would you ask me that?'
He says he believes I am withholding information. Buck gets up to protest but sits down again at a sharp gesture from the Judge, who then asks if I was in the stables that night.
I don't know how to reply. I want to lie but why would I be here if he did not already know the answer?
He asks why I was there.
'I think you know the answer to that.'
He says he needs to hear it from me.
'I was there with Buck, from around eight until eleven.'
He is surprised that we could spend so long there undetected.
'It isn't busy in the evenings. Anyway, the door creaks so that you hear it open.'
He asks if the liaison is a secret.
'James, my husband, doesn't know. He is away a lot, as he is at present.'
He asks if I would be surprised to hear that the other men know, that four of them mentioned me by name.
'No. They know everything that goes on.'
The Judge looks at me for a long time without speaking. Finally he asks if I returned to the stables later.
I stare back. Somehow I know he knows, even though I can't understand how he can.
His face is kinder when he says he doesn't think I would stand by and let Mr Larabee hang. He thinks I was waiting to see what happened, hoping I wouldn't have to say anything.
I look across at Mr Larabee. I expect him to be angry but he doesn't look it. My voice comes out in a whisper. 'I didn't want James to find out. I don't want to lose him. I hoped, after all you have done for the town, they might give you the benefit of the doubt. But I was going to come forward if I had to.' He gives a slight nod. He still doesn't look angry.
The Judge says I wasn't planning to leave my husband then.
I'm surprised he'd think so - Buck doesn't want a wife. 'No. I love James. We we want a family but we've been married for three years and nothing and not for want of trying. So, when Buck asked me, I thought well, he's tall and dark, like James - who would know? I hoped there might be a baby. That was how it started.'
Poor Buck. That has come as a shock to him. So it wasn't just a bit of fun, the Judge says.
'No. I mean it was fun Buck is Buck. But that wasn't why I did it. James is just as much fun.'
The Judge looks sad, understanding what a mess I have made of everything. He asks about that night.
I take a deep breath. 'I was asleep at home when I suddenly woke and realized my locket was missing - I hadn't taken it off when I undressed. I looked everywhere but I knew it must be in the stables. I should have gone back in the morning but I was so anxious, partly because it was my mother's and partly because I didn't want someone to find it there. So I went to look for it. That was about a quarter before two.'
The Judge gives me a kind smile when he prompts me again.
'Even by lamplight, it only took a few minutes to find the locket. It was where we'd been. I'd nearly reached the door when it creaked so I had no time to hide before he the dead man came in. He must have seen me arrive because he wasn't surprised to find me there. You can see the stables from the back of the hotel, though I can't think why he would have been looking at that hour. He asked if I'd left something behind earlier. The way he said it made me realize he knew - he thought I'd keep quiet so it didn't come out about Buck.'
The color rises in my cheeks as I go on. 'I let him for a minute but he was so rough that I couldn't stand it. I told him to get off and slapped him hard. He fell back against a stall and knocked a bucket down. Then he grabbed my hair and hit my head against the wall. Things aren't quite so clear after that. Mr Larabee must have been asleep in one of the stalls and woken by the noise. When he saw what was happening, he tried to help.'
Facing him, I tell him what it seems he can't remember. 'You were very drunk - you could barely stand - but you still hit him hard. He staggered and, for a second, it looked like it would be enough. But then he rushed forward and knocked you into the wall. He bent over, took your gun and cocked it. You grabbed his jacket, banged your head into his and then passed out. Somehow the gun landed near me. I picked it up and told him to leave you alone but before he could move I didn't mean to it just went off.'
I'm staring at my hands, remembering what it was like to see the hole open in his back. 'I ran out through the tackroom. Not because of Buck or James or anything. Just because I'd never hurt anyone before I didn't know he was dead.'
So it was an accident, the Judge asks.
I nod. 'But I still killed him. Mr Larabee never even touched the gun.'
The Judge smiles and says he doesn't doubt a jury would see that as self-defense, given that the man had been making a nuisance of himself with another woman in town. He looks sorry when he tells me there will have to be a trial. He can't keep it secret.
'I know. I think I knew all along.' I confront the men whose time I've wasted this past week. 'I'm truly sorry, Mr Larabee. You did your best for me and I've let you go through all this.'
He seems unconcerned and tells me not to worry about it. He's been through worse and it isn't my fault he couldn't handle the man or remember what happened. He says it might have been him dead now.
Buck comes to my side and puts his arm round my shoulders. I feel guilty because I was using him. I know he feels guilty because he talked me out of breaking it off and now I shall probably lose my husband. I can't blame him - it was my choice to be there and now I must pay for it. Perhaps James can forgive me.
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