It's All in the Angles
It was quiet on the main street of the town. After the trouble of the past week, the regulators were glad for the respite. No one was happier about it than the resident gambler. Ezra had been just beside himself when he found out that Maude was sending a pool table. He and Buck had worked to clear a space for it in the saloon. He didn't want it too near the door and windows because he wanted to protect it from random gunfire. Josiah pitched in and helped to rig a trio of lanterns over it to provide enough light to play. While it was quiet in the town, Ezra intended to amuse himself at the gentleman's game of pool.
Chris took Josiah, Vin and JD with him to deliver prisoners to Yuma and escort several wagons of provisions for the Widow Potter's store. Buck had begged out, saying that he felt the need to spread some of his 'animal magnetism' around. Nathan needed to stay and the blond knew that Ezra wanted to familiarize himself with the new pool table. They expected to be gone ten days.
Buck smiled as he let himself out of the room he'd just spent a very pleasurable night in. Miss Rose had slipped away at daybreak, leaving him to get some sleep. It was nearly noon when he'd finally roused enough to get out of bed. He wasn't surprised when he saw Ezra bent over the pool table, making one of the trick shots he had been practicing.
"You make that look easy, Ezra," he called as he grabbed a cue and checked the cork on the tip.
"Appearances are everything, especially if I am to make any profit from this."
The two men played for almost an hour before taking a break. Buck took a walk down the boardwalk while Ezra saddled up and took a ride around the town. Nathan waved at both of them from his porch outside of the clinic. He had one of the cowhands from the James ranch laid up with a nasty broken leg. Even the normally stoic healer had blanched at the extruding bone.
Nodding and smiling to everyone he passed, Buck walked the length of the boardwalk, stopping to chat here and there with the townspeople. It was oddly soothing for things to be so calm. He truly wished there were more days like this one. Stopping in at Potter's, he picked up a new bar of soap for his shaving cup and some bits of hard candy. He liked to have them on hand in case he wanted to talk up some sweet, young thing, he didn't want to offend with bad breath. Seeing the stage pull in, he bid Gloria Potter a good day and crossed the street to see if any of the passengers were getting off. The coachman tossed down a small sack of mail and Buck picked it up to deliver to Mary Travis. No one got off and as soon as the animals had been watered, the coach left.
For the next two days, it was a little slice of Heaven for Buck and Ezra. The southerner was raking in the money at the pool table in the afternoons and at the card table in the evenings. Buck was like a busy little bee, flitting from one pretty flower to the next, pollinating as he went. Nathan kept close to the clinic, tending to the recovering man, marveling that the leg appeared to be healing well and no sign of infection or gangrene had set in.
Miss Matilda Green was a very fine lady and Buck was only too happy to expend his particular brand of charm enticing her into staying the night with him. She was a petite little thing; Buck could almost touch his fingers and thumbs around her tiny, hourglass waist. Tipping his hat to Ezra, who was playing five-card draw with some of the regulars, he followed Miss Green up to the room he'd reserved for the night.
"I hope your friend doesn't run into my brother any time soon," the man to the gambler's left said as he watched the pair ascend the steps. "Andy won't take too kindly to that guy messing with his girl."
"I would hazard a guess that your brother and the fair Miss Green are not yet formally betrothed?" Ezra asked as he tossed in a two-bit piece.
"Don't matter, Andy's the jealous type," the man across from Ezra said as he folded his hand.
"Mr. Wilmington is more than able to look after himself," the southerner replied as he put down his hand and gathered in the small pile of coins. They continued to play for another couple of hours before the others declared that they had lost enough and excused themselves from the table. Ezra gathered the cards and slipped them into his pocket, signaling the bartender for another cup of coffee before he took his final round of the town.
The three men crept silently up the stairs and along the landing to the room where Buck was dosing in a post orgasmic haze. The lovely Miss Matilda lay sprawled on his chest, her head tucked under his chin. Andy pulled his gun and nodded to William and Sonny. His brother didn't want them to kill the man who was lying with his girl, only beat him severely so that he didn't bother her again.
When the door exploded inward, Buck instinctively shoved Matilda away from the intruder while reaching for the holster hanging on the post of the headboard. With the backlighting from the door shining in his eyes, he saw the gun barrel pointed at him and raised his hand, his gun pointed toward the ceiling. Sonny stumbled slightly, turning over the hurricane lamp, shattering the mantle and sending glass flying.
"Take it easy now, fellows. I don't want any trouble," Buck said as he tried to smile and look non-threatening. He was unprepared for the blow to the head with the pistol barrel. He felt a trickle of blood running down the side of his head.
Andy wanted to watch. He had deliberately gone and wakened his brother to tell him that Tilly was fooling around with the big, handsome gunslinger. Edging around the enraged man, Sonny tripped over Buck's boots and fell to the floor, turning at the last minute to land on his behind instead of his hands and knees. Startled, Andy pulled the trigger just as his brother turned to try to prevent Sonny from falling.
Buck also squeezed the trigger by reflex when William's body landed on top of him.
The explosion of both guns in the small room overhead caused all of the remaining customers in the saloon to look up and a few pulled their own guns and dashed up the steps to see what had happened. A few ran out, heading for the livery, to alert Nathan.
Matilda screamed as the guns went off, tumbling out of the bed and landing on the floor, sobbing and shaking in terror. William's eyes went wide for a moment before he slumped forward, falling across Buck, the gun slipping from his nerveless fingers. Sonny scooted away, heedless of the shards of glass embedding in his hands and behind. Buck's gun was trapped beneath the lifeless body. A cautious man, who peered in before stepping across the threshold, nudged the door open. Another man took one of the lamps from the hall and held it aloft in the room, staring at the body of one man lying across the body of another. A third man stood nearly behind the door, staring at the fallen man. A fourth sat on the floor, some feet away, with his hands held in the air while they could all hear the woman sobbing hysterically behind the bed.
Nathan pushed his way through the throng of people, muscling into the room. His eyes widened in surprise at the sight that greeted him. He pushed the others out of the way and reached to check for a pulse on the man slumped, face down across the bed. When he didn't find one, he checked Buck. Blood was running down his face from a nasty split in his scalp but he seemed to be unharmed. He spared a glance at the other man on the floor, his mind cataloging the bloody palms and knowing that he had more than one patient to attend to.
Returning from his patrol, Ezra saw the men that ran from the saloon for Nathan's door. He took only a couple of moments to unsaddle Chaucer, put him into a stall and check his weapons before running to see what had happened. He launched himself up the stairs and elbowed through the crowd of gawkers, his angry look sending many of them on their way. When he reached the room, he saw that Nathan was checking the men on the bed. Hearing the woman still sobbing, he moved around the bed, holstering his gun and taking hold of her.
"Please don't hurt me!" Matilda screamed as she tried to curl into a protected ball.
"Miss Greene, are you injured in some way?" Ezra shouted, his voice penetrating her fear and causing her to latch onto him. Not without some difficulty, he got both of them to their feet, wrapping the bed sheet around the woman to preserve her modesty as he steered her around the bed and into the hall. He made his way to his room and unlocked the door, nudging the woman inside and to his rocking chair before stopping to light the lantern. The woman sat in the chair, sobbing softly and shaking. Ezra grabbed a small glass from his bureau and poured some brandy in it. He put it in the woman's hand and forced her to take hold of it and drink. She shuddered as the liquor burned its way to her stomach. He turned, weapon in hand as his door opened, relaxing when he saw the healer.
"I need you to keep an eye on things for a minute. I sent for the undertaker to haul the body away and ..."
"The undertaker?" Ezra asked, his heart leaping into his throat.
"Buck's fine, the other guy is dead and his friend has glass ground into his hands and behind. I'm going to take him to the clinic and tend to him before I get to Buck. The brother of the dead man is in there, make sure he doesn't disappear. Is she alright?"
"Miss Green seems shaken by her experience but she does not appear to have been physically injured in the altercation. I will settle her in here until we can investigate the situation."
Nathan nodded and left the doorway. Ezra turned to the woman sitting in the chair. Tears rolled down her cheeks and her shoulders shook as she cried silently.
"Miss Green, would you be more comfortable if you were to lie down for a little while? You may make use of my bed and I will make certain that you are not bothered for a few hours," he urged as he drew her to her feet and across to the bed. She obediently sat and then curled up on her side, still trembling. Ezra shook out his heaviest quilt and draped it over her before turning the lantern down and slipping out of the room. The man he had been playing cards with earlier stumbled out of the room, pausing to glare at Standish, "Your friend, he killed my brother!" Ezra made no comment as he saw Inez coming out of the room and he hurried to her side. "How is he?"
"He's confused and very upset. I am going to get him a drink to calm him down," the Mexican woman said softly.
"Not very much, if he has a concussion he should not have alcohol."
"I hadn't thought of that. Of course, you're right. I will bring up some fresh tea."
Watching Inez as she hurried down the stairs, he turned and went to check on Buck. He found his friend sitting on the side of the bed, holding his head with one hand and keeping his balance with the other on the post of the footboard. Buck flinched when he heard the door but slumped slightly as he recognized the plum colored coat and knew it was Ezra coming toward him.
"Should you be upright so soon after a head injury?" Ezra asked as he reached out to steady the swaying man.
"Help me with my clothes, would you? I feel like half the town has been in here to look at my naked ass," Buck said, his voice tightly laced with pain. Ezra moved immediately to gather the clothing and help his friend to dress. When Buck stood to pull up his underwear and pants, he swayed again, leaning heavily on the smaller gambler and nearly taking both of them to the floor. Before Ezra could right Buck's shirt and help him on with it, Nathan returned.
"What in the hell are you doing? You aughta be lyin' down, now. You got a head injury, Buck. You'll jus' be passin' out if you try to go anywhere." While he was scolding, he took in the pain filled, shame filled eyes and he relented slightly. "Let's see about getting' you another room for the night and I'll tend to your head."
Inez was standing in the doorway and heard the last comment. "You can use the room next door to Ezra's. I brought some tea."
"That's nice, Miss Inez. Could you bring me some hot water and some rags so I can clean up this wound?" Nathan asked as he took hold of Buck's wrist and drew the limb up over his shoulder to support the bigger man as he helped him down the hall.
By the time the sun rose, Buck was sleeping off the herbal tea and Miss Green had been moved to a room at the hotel until she could be questioned in the morning. Ezra got a couple of hours of sleep and then took another round of patrol. He was burning with curiosity about what had happened but he knew he would have to wait until later in the day to begin taking statements. Inez, bless her, met him at the door with a cup of strong, brandy-laced coffee.
Before they could send a telegram advising Chris of what had happened, they received one saying that they had picked up the provisions and were on their way back. Ezra crumpled the little square of paper and stuffed it in his pocket before heading for the hotel to interview Miss Green. He found her in the dining room, looking pale and disheveled. With his hat in his hand, he approached her table.
"Miss Green, Ezra Standish, I was wondering if you might be up to giving a statement about the altercation in Mr. Wilmington's room last night."
"I'm not ... I don't ... what do you need to know?" she asked timidly.
"Just tell me what happened in your own words, Ma'am," he urged as he sat down and pulled a small tablet of paper from his inside jacket pocket. Touching the lead of his pencil to his tongue, he began to make notes.
Andrew Tilden had spent the hours since his brother's death working out exactly what he wanted to say. He would see to it that the man who killed William was hanged for murder. When the dapper southerner entered the room, Andy smiled privately, it was show time.
Ezra shook his head in dismay at the statements he had gotten from Sonny, from the woman and from the dead man's brother. Sonny denied seeing anything, saying that he had been falling and didn't see who fired the shot that killed William. Miss Green didn't see what had happened because Buck was shielding her from harm and Mr. Tilden firmly asserted that Buck was a cold-blooded killer who deserved to hang. He knocked softly on the door to the room next door to his own and waited until Nathan opened the door. Buck was sitting up on the bed, a swath of cloth wrapped around his head. He looked thoroughly and completely miserable.
"Buck, are you feeling up to making a statement?" Ezra asked softly.
"Yeah, ain't much I can say though. I don't remember a lot about what happened after that guy clocked me in the head. What's he saying, anyway?"
"You know I can't reveal the contents of the witness statements, Buck. Now, can you just tell me what you do remember about what happened?"
After taking a statement from Buck, Ezra was torn. If it were anyone else, he would have taken them to the jail and locked them up until the judge could get there but this was Buck Wilmington, his friend and compatriot. He was sitting at his regular table in the saloon pondering the situation when Inez noticed and approached him.
"Is there something wrong, Ezra?"
"Oh, Inez, yes, I find myself in a quandary. I wish that Chris and the others were here to lift this burden from me. It will certainly require someone with more wisdom than I posses to clear up this very untidy situation."
"What is it? Certainly you do not believe that Buck killed that man, do you?" Inez asked, her tone clearly scandalized.
"No, I don't believe that he killed in cold blood. I do believe that he was defending himself and the fair Miss Green. However, the fact remains that a man is dead and that it is quite possible that Buck is responsible," Ezra said with a sigh. "For now, I will remain passive and hope that the victim's family does not choose to pursue the matter farther."
No sooner had the words left his lips than Andy Tilden stormed into the saloon and right up to the southerner's table. "Why isn't that man in jail?" he demanded to know.
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra countered calmly.
"The man who killed my brother! Why isn't he in jail? I want him locked up until he can be brought to trial!"
"Mr. Tilden, the man is injured. He has a concussion, he is hardly a flight risk."
"I don't care! I want him in jail! He killed my baby brother! He deserves to hang!" Andy shouted, gesturing wildly. Ezra felt the eye of every customer in the saloon on him and he slowly rose to confront the angry young man.
"When Nathan says that he is well enough to be moved, he will be relocated to the jail and not before. Now, perhaps you should attend to the arrangements for interring your brother and allow me to sit in peace."
"You're a friend of his! I heard that you were a friend of his! You think he's going to get away with this? I'll go up there and take him to the jail myself!"
His gun was in his hand before he even actually finished thinking about it. Ezra backed away from the young man and toward the staircase, preventing anyone from disturbing Buck. He noticed the way several other people were looking at him and realized that he had all the makings for a lynch mob on his hands. Inez pulled something from under the bar and he smiled slightly at hearing the pump-action rifle before her softly spoken threat.
"You will not make trouble for Mr. Wilmington. You are not welcome here, get out!"
Andy looked in disbelief at the Mexican woman and slowly let his shoulders down, relaxing his stance. He took a couple of steps back and turned so that his comments were clearly heard by the other patrons, "I see how it is. You think you can get away with this. That's fine. I will contact the judge and inform him of how one of his men is a murderer and the others are protecting him."
Ezra waited until Tilden was out of the saloon before he holstered his gun. Inez sighed loudly enough for him to hear as she replaced the shotgun under the counter and went back to her work. The southerner glanced around the room, just to make sure no one else had any idea of going to get Buck. When he was sure that no one would follow, he turned and went up to inform Nathan that they were going to have a problem.
"He wants us to put Buck in jail?" Nathan asked.
"Yes, he was quite vocal about it. I don't think any of the local denizens are brave enough to go up against us but I fear that Tilden may try to incite a lynch mob," Ezra said as he looked out of the window to watch the goings on in the street below. He saw Tilden talking to some of the townspeople, gesturing toward the saloon. The men looked up before shaking their heads and moving away from the young stranger. "I am going down to the telegraph office and wire the judge."
"I'll keep an eye on things up here," Nathan said as he looked toward the bed where Buck was sleeping.
"Inez is aware of the situation, I'm certain she will get off a warning if anyone attempts to molest either of you."
After sending his wire, Ezra headed for the restaurant to get supper for the three of them. He noticed immediately how the conversations seemed to halt when he arrived and that more than one angry look was directed his way. He thanked the waitress for their meals and took them back to the saloon. He also noticed that he was getting some angry stares when he stepped through the batwing doors. Upon reaching Buck's room, he set the box down and pulled out the containers.
"As much as it pains me to suggest it, I think we need to adjourn to a safer locale. Mr. Tilden has been quite effective at fanning the flames of discord in the town. We are too vulnerable here, there are too many ways for an ambush."
"What are you talking about, Ezra?" Buck asked as he tried to sit up and groaned in pain.
"It seems that Mr. Tilden has swayed public opinion against you. It seems that many people feel that you were not justified in defending yourself against his brother."
"Aw Hell, Ezra, people know I would never hurt anybody for no reason. I think you're reading too much into this. I need to get on my feet so I can tell my side of the story."
"You ain't hardly well enough to be arguin' with folks," Nathan protested.
"Perhaps tonight, as the town slumbers, we could relocate Buck to some place more defensible, like the clinic," Ezra suggested.
"I'm not running away, Ezra," Buck said angrily. "I didn't do anything wrong."
"Very well, I shall endeavor to provide you with protection while you're here," the southerner decided. He pulled the curtain back to look out on the street below. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he saw two groups of men striding along the boardwalk, armed.
They had just finished their meals when there was a knock on the door. Ezra pulled his gun and moved to stand close to the door before calling out, "Who's there?"
"Senor Standish, it is Inez," the barmaid called back. As soon as the southerner unlocked the door and touched the knob, the door burst open and he found himself facing a pair of guns. Raising his hands, Ezra allowed the men to divest him of his weapons. Beyond the open door, he could see one of the men holding Inez with his arm around her throat and a gun pressed to her ribs. She had tears running down her cheeks.
"Now, we don't want any trouble. We only want Buck in a jail cell. We know you all are friends but he killed a man and he's got to stand trial. You and Nathan are free to come and go as long as you don't try to get him out," the man said.
"Damn Tyler, you know me, I helped you last month when that storm took the roof off of your barn and this is how you pay me back?" Buck protested.
"I'm sorry, Buck, but you still gotta tell it to the judge," the man said.
Nathan moved to help Buck to his feet and supported him until he got his legs under him. The man holding Inez moved back to let them go in front of him. Ezra moved out of the room with Tyler holding his arm and went down the steps first. Two men with guns followed Nathan and Buck, with the man holding Inez in the back. They left the saloon and made their way down the boardwalk to the jail. Ezra glared angrily at the people they passed. People they had put their lives on the line to protect were now looking at them as if they were already pronounced guilty.
The men allowed Nathan to help Buck into the cell and then they pulled him out and locked the door, pocketing the keys. With their guns still pointed at the remaining regulators, the men backed out of the jail, pausing only long enough to put Ezra and Nathan's guns on the desk. As soon as the door closed, Ezra began digging into his pocket.
"What are you doing?" Nathan asked.
"I am planning to liberate our compatriot. Why don't you make yourself useful and keep watch. Do you think that Buck could ride?"
"No, he's in no condition to ride."
"Ezra, leave it. I'm safe in here. You guys would only get yourselves hurt if you break me out," Buck called tiredly from his place on the cot. "Could you just get me something for this headache? Please?"
"You stay here and keep an eye on him," Nathan said as he picked up his gun and left the jail. On the boardwalk, he nearly ran into Mary Travis. "Mrs. Travis, is anything wrong?"
"Nathan, I was just coming to make sure you and Buck were alright. I just heard that a mob forced you to bring him here," the blonde woman said as she peered through the window to see Buck.
"He's not feelin' too good right now, Ma'am. I'm just on my way to get him somethin' for his head. I don't think he's up to visitors just now."
"I just wanted to let you know that I wired the fort for some reinforcements. I don't like the idea of it being just the two of you against that whole crowd. If you need anything, just stop and let me know. I'll help you any way I can."
"I 'preciate that, Ma'am, really I do. I'll let them know, too."
A small contingent from the fort arrived the next morning. Nathan and Ezra told them to leave two men outside of the jail and that the others could rotate for the patrols and rest. They paid Yosemite and his assistant to bring a bed from the hotel for them to get some decent sleep. They also put a bed in the cell, much to the consternation of the men who had the keys. The two men holed up in the jail to protect Buck, virtually ignoring the rest of the town.
On the morning of the second day, an older man ran up on the boardwalk and headed for the door to the jail. The soldiers standing guard forcibly turned him away. The man yelled out for Nathan. When the healer stepped out, he begged him to come. The man's son had fallen from the hayloft and was badly hurt.
"Go ahead, Nathan. Your talents are needed to help that child. I am capable of protecting our compatriot with the help of our soldier friends. Chris and the others should be back today or tomorrow and Judge Travis is due in two days," Ezra said. "I can manage the herbal tea if he has any more pain."
Nathan rushed to gather his supplies and saddled his horse. Ezra was still standing on the boardwalk as he rode past and he tipped his hat before heading back inside. On a table outside of the cell, they had a board set up and were playing chess. Buck waited for the southerner to take a seat before reaching through the bars to make his move.
That evening, Ezra was playing solitaire on the desk while Buck was reading a book that Mary Travis had brought him. Out on the boardwalk, both men heard the sound of raised voices. Ezra abandoned the desk and hurried to look out the window. His stomach dropped when he saw the mob of armed men menacing the two soldiers protecting the jail.
"Give him to us! He's a murderer!" a voice called.
"I was afraid of this," Ezra murmured softly.
Buck stood close to the bars and called out to him, "What's happening?"
"A lynch mob. It would seem that Mr. Tilden has swayed enough of the citizenry to his point of view. He has twenty or so with him out there," Ezra said as he came over and unlocked the cell door. The sound of a rifle outside had him hurrying back to look out the window. The mob had retreated somewhat; they were now in the middle of the street. A sweet, welcome sound came down the boardwalk, spurs tinkling amongst evenly spaced footsteps.
Chris and Vin came down the boardwalk, guns drawn. The lynch mob, facing the notorious gunslinger, now retreated farther away, several men pointedly turning and running away. The soldiers, looking relieved that they weren't faced with the possibility of killing people, shrank before the blond man.
"What in the hell is going on around here?" Chris said, his voice oddly calm.
"S-sir, we were contacted by Mrs. Travis. She said that the lawmen here needed backup. Your men are inside," the Private answered.
Chris opened the door and entered the jail, finding himself facing Ezra with both guns drawn. Inside the cell, Buck stood, a bandage around his forehead. Vin backed into the doorway, still watching the few stragglers in the street.
"I can't leave you two alone for a week without you getting into trouble?" Chris asked.
"It wasn't Ezra's fault," Buck replied.
"This time?" the blond finished. "What happened?"
Buck and Ezra explained what had happened and Chris felt the craving for a strong drink. Josiah and JD joined them, the young sheriff going ballistic at the sight of his friend behind bars. Mary, having heard that the others were back, came to the jail to let them know that the judge would arrive on the morning stage.
"Thanks, Mary. I appreciate your help," Chris said as he escorted her to the door. When she had gone, he turned on Ezra. "Go on and get some sleep, we'll take the watch here."
"If it's all the same to you, I would prefer to remain here," Ezra said.
"I said go and get some sleep!" Chris said, his voice tight with anger. "Now get out!"
"Chris, he's in as much danger as I am. Tilden knows that he's been protecting me," Buck called. He didn't understand why his friend was so angry with Ezra.
"Josiah, go with him. Vin and I can handle things here," Chris said. The graying man looked toward Ezra and sighed. He started for the door, hoping the gambler would follow him and not further provoke Chris' anger.
Ezra looked from Chris to Buck before his shoulders slumped and he turned away. Vin saw him touch his fingers to his hat brim as he followed Josiah out and closed the door behind them.
"Weren't you a little hard on him, big dog?" Buck accused.
"I left him here to watch your back and I come back to find a lynch mob out there baying for your blood. Where was he? What was he doing?"
"He was taking his patrols, just like he was supposed to do! It's not his fault!"
"No, it's your fault! You and your damned 'animal magnetism.' You couldn't leave her alone, could you? Are you trying to get yourself killed?" JD ranted, surprising them all.
"JD, I'm sorry," Buck said, reaching through the bars to clap a hand on the young man's shoulder. "I'm really sorry."
Judge Travis arrived the next afternoon. He demanded to meet with Ezra first, infuriating Chris. Vin understood that it was because Standish had taken statements from the witnesses and he tried to explain it to Chris. JD rode out to retrieve Nathan. After talking for well over an hour with Ezra, Orin went to speak to Mr. Tilden, Sonny Mason and Miss Green. When he finished talking with them, he went to the jail to speak with Buck.
"Honestly, Judge Travis, I didn't shoot that man. I don't know what happened, but I didn't shoot him. They came barreling into the room in the middle of the night with their guns drawn, I was asleep!"
"But you were with Matilda Green, weren't you?"
"Yeah, I was with her."
"Alright, we'll have to have a trial. I'm sorry Buck, but I can't decide this on my own, it will seem like favoritism. Do you know a lawyer or someone who can defend you?"
"Do I really need a lawyer? I mean, it was self defense!"
"I realize that, Buck, but you still need someone to defend you. I have someone I can wire, he'll probably be able to get here in a few days."
"Can you at least let me outta here 'til the trial?"
"Sorry, Buck, I can't do that either. If it were anything else, maybe, but murder is a serious charge," Travis said sadly.
For two long days, every time Ezra saw Chris, he stopped whatever he was doing and walked away. He was still smarting from the way the gunslinger had treated him, as if he had failed to protect Buck. Josiah tried over and over to convince him that Chris was just worried about his oldest friend, that he really didn't blame Ezra, but Ezra wasn't having it. He even avoided the jail, since Chris told him that he wasn't needed there. JD was beside himself with worry. He had heard the talk around town, it seemed that a large majority of people thought Buck was guilty.
The lawyer arrived from Bitter Creek on the stage. He spent the entire afternoon talking with Buck and interviewing the other witnesses. Judge Travis decided to hold the trial the next day. He had chosen a jury, after talking with nearly forty people; it was hard to find men who hadn't already decided that Buck was guilty. He convened the trial in the grain exchange at ten in the morning. Mr. Tilden's lawyer called Andy to the stand.
"Can you tell me what happened on the night your brother was killed?" the lawyer asked.
"Well, I was playing cards with that fancy dressed man in the saloon all evening. That man, Mr. Wilmington, he was coming on to my brother's fiancée all evening. Matilda, she didn't know any better, she went along with it. When I got back to my room, I told William that she was with him. He got upset and went to get her back. He took his gun because we knew that Wilmington was armed. We kicked in the door and went inside. That guy grabbed his gun and shot my brother when he leaned over to help Sonny after he fell. William wasn't even pointing his gun at Wilmington."
Buck's lawyer rose and began questioning the man. "Other witnesses said that they heard two shots fired. Can you explain that to the court?"
"Well, I fired after he did because I was startled," Andy answered.
The lawyer went on to ask several more questions. Where had they come from? How long were they planning to stay in the town? What was their final destination? How did he get along with his brother? How did he feel about Miss Green? Andy calmly answered the questions until he started on the questions about his brother and Tilly, then he became angry. Judge Travis had to bang his gavel and call for order several times before everyone got quiet again.
Sonny Mason's testimony was brief. He had gone along with his friends but, being a little drunk, had stumbled and fell, getting cut on the glass from the broken lantern. He didn't see anything, he didn't know who killed William.
Matilda Green was the next to testify. She timidly approached the witness stand and was sworn in. Her eyes nervously went to Buck and she smiled encouragingly before letting her gaze drift to Andy. She still smiled, but not as brightly before looking away. It was Andy's lawyer who rose to question her first. He instructed her to tell them how she came to be in bed with Mr. Wilmington.
"I'm not ... I wasn't actually engaged to William. He always said that but it wasn't true. I went to the saloon looking for a drink. I met Buck ... Mr. Wilmington there. He was funny and charming and I just couldn't help falling for him. We laughed and talked and had a few drinks, I enjoyed his company. When he invited me to spend the night with him, I agreed."
A general murmur of scandal went through the spectators and Travis glared them quiet. The lawyer shook his head as if he couldn't believe the woman actually confessed to willingly going with the man to his room.
"Can you tell the court what you saw and heard when your fiancée entered the room where you were with Mr. Wilmington?"
"He wasn't my fiancée. I was asleep when they busted into the room. Buck pushed me behind him to protect him. Andy, Sonny and William came in with guns drawn. Buck didn't threaten them, he stayed calm and tried to keep things from getting out of hand."
"And were you able to see what happened when William Tilden was shot?"
"I don't know exactly what happened. William hit Buck in the head with the gun. Buck had his hand up, his gun was pointed toward the ceiling. Andy fell and William bent over to grab him. I heard the gunshots and then William fell against the bed."
"Are you certain Mr. Wilmington had his hand up?"
"Yes, I'm quite certain."
"But you freely admitted that you enjoyed his company. You don't want to see him hang, do you?"
"Of course I don't want to see him hang! He was just defending himself! And he was defending me! William had no right to come in there like that!"
"But you do admit you like Mr. Wilmington. You don't want to see him hang. You might even lie to protect him."
"NO! I'm telling the truth!"
Judge Travis banged the gavel and silenced the crowd. He allowed Miss Green a few moments to compose herself before gesturing for Buck's lawyer to begin his questions.
"Miss Green, just one question, are you certain that Mr. Wilmington had his hand up, like this, when you heard the gunshots?" He held his hand up, above his shoulder for her to see.
"Yes, his gun wasn't even pointed toward William."
The next witnesses were the men who entered the room after the shots. They all testified to the same thing. None of them could tell who had shot whom and that Miss Green was on the floor screaming when they arrived.
Sitting in the back of the room, Ezra listened intently to the testimony. Something about it bothered him; he just couldn't put his finger on it. He kept running the statements through his head; over and over he tried to visualize what might have happened. Finally, he got up and slipped out the back of the grain exchange and made his way over to the saloon where it was quiet and he could think. Inez had closed the saloon so he had to use his key to get in. He pulled a small box of sulfur-headed matches from his coat pocket and lit the lanterns over the pool table. He put the balls on the felt-covered surface and took the rack from the peg on the wall. When the balls were racked, he took down a cue and checked the cork tip before breaking.
Buck was called up to testify. Nathan had removed the bandage and the stitches from his head only that morning. He was nervous about testifying. Tilden was glaring at him and he knew that he couldn't say much more than the others had said. He knew his hand had been in the air and his gun pointed away from the intruders, but he couldn't say how William had gotten killed.
"Mr. Wilmington, can you tell the court what happened on the night Mr. Tilden was killed?"
Buck's eyes locked on each of his friends for a moment. Chris nodded to him, Vin shifted nervously, Josiah fingered the cross around his neck, Nathan licked his lips and leaned forward in his chair, JD wrung his hands, he'd been chewing on his nails until they were bleeding, and Ezra ... Ezra was no where to be seen. Buck's heart sank when he couldn't find the gambler in the crowd.
"What's he looking for?" Chris whispered to Vin. The tracker turned to scan the faces of the people, trying to see what Buck was looking for. After a moment, he realized that Ezra was gone. Since Chris had been so angry with him over the past few days, Ezra had taken a seat as far from the blond as he could. Now the seat in that corner was empty.
"Ezra's gone," Vin whispered back. He could have sworn that he felt the man's hackles rise.
"I was just in the saloon having a drink with ... some friends. Miss Green came in and I started making conversation with her. Later, she agreed to stay the night with me. We were ... sleeping when three men broke in with guns in their hands. I pulled mine from the headboard but they were already aiming and I knew I'd be killed if I tried so I put my hand up. The closer man, William, he hit me with the barrel of his gun," Buck reached up and touched the tender spot near his hairline where the stitches had been, "and things are a little confused after that. The second guy, Sonny, he tripped over my boots and fell. William reached out for Sonny and I heard a shot. I guess it startled me and I pulled the trigger. The next thing I know, William is falling on me."
"So, you can't say for sure that you didn't shoot Mr. Tilden, can you?"
"I didn't shoot him!" Buck shouted.
"You just said that you were a little confused after getting hit with a gun. Which is it? You can't be sure if you were confused, can you, Mr. Wilmington?"
I DID NOT SHOOT THAT MAN!"
As the orange ball fell into the side pocket, Ezra was left with a very difficult shot. He considered using the rake to support the cue but decided against it and leaned against the table with his arm outstretched. As he was lining up the shot, he heard the witness statements again. Buck was lying down when he heard the first shot. The words ran in a continuous loop in his mind.
Orin banged the gavel and stood up to call the crowd down as they all reacted to Buck shouting at the lawyer. Chris stood and turned to stare at those closest to him. As they sheepishly took their seats, he was able to make eye contact with others, who also fell quiet and stared at the floor. When it was completely quiet, he slowly walked to the door and left the building.
Buck stared with longing at Chris's back as he left. His stomach clenched as he tried to collect his thoughts. If his best friend was walking away, it must really be bad. His lawyer stood and began asking questions.
The eight ball banked in precisely the place he'd aimed for and rolled across the table to drop into the side pocket. Ezra smiled as he let the cue stick rest on the table for a moment. He was startled by an angry voice and by the hand that grabbed him by the back of his coat.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing? The least you could do was to be there for him as he testified!" Chris shouted angrily as he spun Ezra around and held him against the pool table.
"Ah ... Mr. Larabee ... Chris ... if you'll kindly remove your hand from my coat, I'll explain what I'm doing. I was trying to come up with an explanation for what happened up there in that room," Ezra said as he tried to move the gunslinger out of his personal space.
Buck was shaking by the time he was excused from the witness chair. He looked toward the empty seat next to Vin and his heart ached. He took his seat behind the defense table and stared down at his folded hands.
"If there is no further testimony," Travis began. The door burst open and Chris, Ezra, Yosemite and the bartender from Digger Dan's rushed in and came directly to stand in front of his table.
"Orin, we'd like to present some more evidence," Chris said breathlessly.
"Yes sir, we have some evidence that will clear Buck's name."
Orin Travis had been a jurist for a lot of years and he had seen a lot of last minute grandstanding but he didn't think that was what Larabee had in mind. He was a little concerned at the look he was getting from Standish. He knew the man was a con artist and hoped that he wasn't going to try to put one over on them.
"Very well, you may present your evidence."
There was an awkward moment when Chris actually had to turn his best friend's future into Ezra's hands. He stared deeply into the green eyes before nodding to him. He saw Ezra take a deep breath and tug on the tails of his coat before turning to face the sea of curious and sometimes hostile faces.
"I would like to call Nathan Jackson to the stand."
There were some angry murmurs from the spectators as Nathan rose and nervously approached the chair. He tried to read something in Ezra's eyes but couldn't. After he was sworn, he sat down. His mind instantly went back to the trial where his father was tried for murdering the man who had been the overseer who indirectly caused his mother's death. He was uneasy about Ezra questioning him.
"Mr. Jackson, can you tell me about the fatal injury suffered by Mr. Tilden?"
"He was shot," Nathan answered hesitantly.
"Would you be so kind as to demonstrate where the bullet entered his body and where it exited?"
Shifting uncomfortably in the chair, Nathan placed his hand on his chest and pointed. He couldn't reach the place on his back. He looked at Ezra and then at Orin.
"Would it be easier if you were to point to the locations on my body?" Ezra offered. Nathan rose and stepped toward Standish. Ezra peeled off his jacket, hanging it over the back of a chair and turned to face the healer.
"The bullet went in right here and came out here," Nathan explained.
"Are you certain about the locations?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
Ezra turned to face the jury as he looked down at the entry point and then at each of them before addressing another question to Nathan. "I know that a bullet travels in a straight line, right? If I am standing here, as Mr. Tilden was standing over Mr. Wilmington, is this the path a bullet from his gun would have taken?"
Understanding dawned in Nathan's mind and he leaned forward before answering. "No, a bullet from his gun would have traveled through at an upward angle."
"What if he were bending over, as the witnesses testified?"
"Still wouldn't match the path the bullet took."
"What if the bullet were fired from, say this angle?" Ezra asked as he stood and pointed his finger like a gun from near his hip.
Nathan nodded, "Yes, that's exactly the angle the bullet would have taken if Tilden were standing in front of him when he was shot."
Ezra turned to meet the eyes of the jurors. "Chris and I dug this bullet out of the ceiling above the bed in the room in question. I had two other witnesses present as well, lest there be any hint of bias in my actions. As Mr. Wilmington asserted, his weapon was pointed up, not at the men who entered his room unannounced. I have nothing else," he told the judge with a smile.
Tilden's lawyer stood and asked only one question. "Is there anyone else who can verify the location of the gunshot wound?"
Irritation washed over him for a moment before Nathan answered, "The undertaker also examined the wounds, he can verify the locations."
That bit of information seemed to deflate the man; he turned and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment before returning to his table.
In the end, it took the jury only about fifteen minutes to return a not guilty verdict. Orin ordered Andy taken into custody for the murder of his brother. As JD's hand closed around his arm, the man began to babble that it was a mistake; he hadn't meant to shoot his brother. Buck slapped the tabletop before coming to his feet and wrapping Ezra in a bone-crushing hug. Ezra fought to get free and began preening and smoothing the wrinkles from his coat. When Chris stepped directly in front of him, he almost flinched.
"Good job," he said, putting his hand on Ezra's shoulder and giving it a squeeze before moving to accompany JD to the jail with Tilden. When he turned away, Ezra's poker face slipped and they all saw how moved he was by the compliment.
They took the celebration to the saloon and it was loud and raucous. Chris and JD joined them after securing their prisoner. Ezra was lavished with several drinks, as was Buck. Matilda Green came in and apologized for all the trouble. Chris watched in amazed silence as the ladies' man carefully extricated his hand from Tilly's and scurried over to stand between Ezra and Vin as they stood at the bar talking with Inez. The gunslinger laughed, he guessed that Buck would be more careful, for a little while at least.