Texas vs. Tanner

by Susan Macdonald

Main Characters: Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee, Bronco Layne

Universe: M7-OW crossover with Bronco

Originally published in Woolly to the Bone #3, Neon RainBow Press

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.

– Proverbs 22:1

Chris Larabee looked up as Vin Tanner entered the saloon. No one ever snuck up on the blond gunslinger – never. That was how he'd stayed alive as long as he had.

"Chris, c'n I talk t' ya?"

Larabee nodded.

"Y' got anythin' needs doin' fer two, maybe three weeks?" Vin asked.

One sandy eyebrow rose slightly. Larabee rarely planned anything further ahead than next Wednesday. Vin knew that.

"I been thinkin'… It's past time I went t' Texas t' try an' clear my name. Sure would 'preciate it if you'd ride with me."

Hazel-green eyes looked up at the younger man. Vin suppressed a shudder; for a moment; it felt like Larabee was staring into his soul. Then Chris nodded.

"I'll go with you."

"Thanks, Chris. I'd rather not do this alone.

"You don't have to. Get the others."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Twenty minutes later, the seven men who kept the peace in Four Corners met in the sheriff's office. The jail held no prisoners at the moment, so their privacy was guaranteed.

"What's up, Chris?" Buck Wilmington asked him.

"Indeed, Mr. Larabee, I confess to a certain measure of curiosity as to why you summoned us all here so precipitously," Ezra Standish added.

"Vin's going to Texas. He's got some business to take care of in Tascosa. Half of us are going with him, half are staying here to guard the town," Larabee declared.

No one said anything for a moment. They all knew what Vin's business in Tascosa was. Then Ezra broke the silence, his green eyes twinkling mischievously as he pointed out, "I regret to inform you, sir, two does not divide into seven evenly. Or were you going to attempt King Solomon's solution?"

Larabee and the others ignored him.

"Who's going and who's staying?" JD Dunne, the town's youthful sheriff, asked.

The brown-haired bounty hunter looked at Buck. He knew, although he and Buck had never discussed the matter – indeed, had been careful to avoid the subject – that Buck was slightly jealous of his friendship with Chris Larabee. The two of them had been friends for twelve or thirteen years. Vin had met Larabee only a year ago, and from the day they had met, they'd taken to each other like long lost brothers. If the trial went against him – if he wound up swinging for a murder he hadn't committed – Chris would need his old friend at his side. Vin didn't want to think about a grieving Chris riding home alone.

"Be grateful if y' came along, Bucklin," Vin invited.

The ladies' man's dark blue eyes caught and held Vin's pale blue eyes. If he understood why the young bounty hunter was asking him, he didn't mention it out loud, but the look that passed between them spoke volumes.

"Be pleased to ride with ya," Buck agreed.

"JD, you and Nathan are staying here," Larabee decreed.

"Vin saved my life," Nathan Jackson reminded him.

"And y' repaid the favor a dozen times," Vin acknowledged.

"We'll be gone for a few weeks. Town can't be without a healer that long." Larabee looked at Dunne. "You can't go, either, JD."

"Huh? Why not?" the young Easterner protested.

"You're the sheriff, can't be mixed up in anything illegal," Larabee explained.

"Illegal?" JD repeated.

"What our illustrious leader means, Mr. Dunne, is that, in the event of a miscarriage of justice – if the court finds against Mr. Tanner – he will not permit the execution of an unjust sentence. It would be highly improper for a duly sworn officer of the law to participate in the unauthorized and hasty removal of a prisoner from the local hoosegow," the dark-haired gambler stated.

JD just stared at Ezra, trying to decipher what he'd said.

Taking pity on the boy, Buck translated, "If they find Vin guilty, we'll break him out and help him run for the border before we let 'em hang him. You're a lawman now, you can't be involved in something like that."

JD frowned. "Darn."

Larabee looked from Josiah to Ezra. "Ezra, you're a decent shot, you stay here and help JD. Josiah, you did a good job talking for Obadiah in court. I'd like you to come with us."

The preacher nodded his acceptance of Larabee's assignments.

Ezra bit his lip and said nothing. For one thing, he had no desire to ride across the desert for days or weeks. For another, he knew it would do no good to protest.

"Anybody got anything they need to take care of before we go?" Larabee asked the men.

Buck and Josiah shook their heads.

"Go pack what you need," Larabee ordered. "We'll leave first thing tomorrow morning."

"Should we telegraph the Judge, ask him for help?" JD asked them.

"Hell, no," Larabee said.

"Way out of his jurisdiction," Buck hedged.

"Judge Travis finds out about Vin being wanted, he'd throw him in jail himself. And us, for aiding and abetting," Larabee explained.

"Oh," JD said in a small voice.

"Oh," Buck agreed.

Six men filed out of the jail. Ezra headed for the saloon, and Chris reached out and laid his hand on his shoulder.

Ezra halted and glanced at the hand, then up at Larabee's face. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris removed his hand. "I don't want to get back and find out the town burned down or got shot up because you were too busy playing cards to help JD. Understand?"

"Sir, since the incident with Colonel Anderson, you have made it quite clear that I was to regard myself as on probation. You have not condescended to inform me that I have been removed from that status. Rest assured, Mr. Larabee, the town will still be here when you return… as will I."

Larabee said nothing. He'd meant it as a joke, but Ezra had taken him seriously. And bitterly. The gunslinger didn't know what to say. After a long moment, he said, "I'm counting on you."

Ezra touched his hat and walked away. As Larabee watched him go, he thought back over things he and the others had said to and about Ezra, things they had meant in jest, but which Ezra had evidently taken to heart. "When we get back, gonna have to mend some fences."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The ride from Four Corners, Arizona, to Tascosa, Texas, was long, but uneventful. The four of them spent the days riding quietly. Some nights they spent in cheap hotels, others out under the stars. One night they spent in an Apache village, where Vin had friends.

And when they stopped for the night, Josiah questioned Vin over and over again about the hunt for Eli Joe and the death of Jess Kincaid. Otherwise, he read his Bible while the other three chatted about inconsequentials. None of them spoke about the ordeal ahead of them, or of the contingency plans for Vin's escape if he were convicted.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah pointed to a town in the distance. "Is that Tascosa?"

Vin shook his head. "Nope. Next town is. Could probably make it there by nightfall, if we tried."

Larabee turned to the tracker. Something in the younger man's tone told him he didn't want to push on to Tascosa tonight.

"Wanna make an early day of it, reach Tascosa first thing tomorrow?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded.

"Let's go see if they got a hotel," Larabee suggested. "I'm a mite tired of sleeping on the ground and eatin' my own cooking."

They pushed on to town, where Josiah bespoke two hotel rooms for himself and "his brothers." After dinner at the hotel restaurant, Larabee suggested a visit to the saloon across the street.

Vin shook his head. "Ain't in the mood fer drinkin'. Just want a hot bath an' a soft bed."

"Ya sound like Ezra," Buck teased. Growing up amongst the Kiowa and the Comanche, Vin normally took rugged conditions for granted. He was usually the last one to echo Standish's sybaritic desires for comfort.

"'Cept Ezra would never say no to visiting the saloon," Josiah said.

"You skedaddle," Larabee ordered. "I'll keep Vin company."

Chris spent the evening in companionable silence with Vin. They had the kind of friendship that didn't need to be filled with endless chatter. Chris understood Vin's desire to face tomorrow looking his best, and with a clear head. If he were about to turn himself in for a crime he hadn't committed, he'd want to look respectable, too, not covered with traildust and smelling of horseflesh, sweat and cheap whiskey.

Besides, if the judge and jury convicted Vin, it might be a long before he saw his next bathtub or featherbed. Maybe never.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin hesitated before dismounting. He stared at the sheriff's office.

"Waiting won't make it any easier," Larabee told him.

"Reckon not." Vin dismounted and tied up his horse.

The four of them entered the sheriff's office.

"Can I help you folks?" Sheriff Harvey asked them.

"M' name's Vin Tanner. I'm wanted for the murder of Jess Kincaid," the tracker announced. "I didn't kill him."

The sheriff reached for his gun.

Chris Larabee had his hand on his gun butt. "You don't need that."

"Came t' turn m'self in. 'M tired 'a being hunted, tired 'a being wanted fer killin' a man I never touched." Vin unbuckled his gun belt and handed it to Josiah. The preacher took it with his right hand, leaving his left hand – his good hand – free for his own gun, if necessary.

"When Kincaid died, Vin nearly got lynched. This time, he'd like a proper trial," Buck said. He laid his hand on his pistol as he spoke.

"Mr. Tanner is looking to be exonerated and vindicated," Josiah added.

"The circuit judge ain't due for a week. You're going have to wait here 'til then." The sheriff pointed to the cell behind him.

Vin took a deep breath.

"One of us will be staying here with Vin," Larabee announced. "Just so the good people of Tascosa don't decide to have another lynch mob."

Something in Larabee's hazel-green eyes frightened the sheriff. He just nodded. After a moment, he'd recovered enough to move. He unlocked the cell door. "In here."

"Damn, I don't wanna do this," Vin muttered.

"We're here with you, brother," Josiah said as he laid his hand on Vin's shoulder. "'A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity'."

Reluctantly, Vin stepped into the cell. He cringed as the iron door slammed shut behind him.

"Buck, go to the telegraph office. Let the others know we arrived safely, but there'll be a delay. Josiah, get a room at the hotel for us."

The two men nodded. "We'll be back soon, Vin," Buck promised.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The jail door opened and a tall man with short brown hair stepped inside. "I'm looking for Vin Tanner. Mind if I talk to him?"

The sheriff shook his head and pointed to the jail cell.

"I mind." A tall, sandy-haired man with stepped forward. He was a homely man, with a face that wouldn't break mirrors, but might crack them. "Who are you?"

"Name's Bronco Layne."

Vin jumped up from the bunk and hurried to the bars. "Cap'n Layne?"

"Hey, Vin." Bronco approached the bars. "Heard you got yourself into a mite of trouble. Came to see if I could help."

"Don't know how y' could, but 'm right glad t' see y' anyway. Cap'n, this is Josiah Sanchez. He's a friend 'a mine, gonna talk fer me in court. Josiah, Cap'n Layne was my commander in the Army."

"Just Bronco, Vin. My Army days are over." The ex-Confederate captain shook hands with the ex-preacher. "Be glad to be a character witness, if you need me."

"I'd sure 'preciate that," Vin agreed.

Josiah smiled. His blue eyes shone and his whole face looked younger, and quite incapable of cracking mirrors. "A friend of Vin's is a friend of mine. Glad to have you on our side, Bronco."

"Been hearing a lot of rumors. Most of 'em contradict each other. What happened, Vin?"

"Got tired 'a livin' with a price on m' head fer somethin' I didn't do. Turned m'self in so's I could get m' name cleared," Vin explained.

Bronco nodded.

The door opened again. Buck and Larabee walked in.

"Hey, Josiah, came to relieve you," Buck said.

"M' friends been stayin' with me, makin' sure there's no lynch mob this time," Vin told Bronco.

"This time?"

"Nearly got killed a few years ago, so I escaped. Ran off b'fore they could hold the trial. Hey, Buck, Chris, like y' t' meet an old friend 'a mine, Bronco Layne," Vin introduced them. "Buck Wilmington, Chris Larabee."

The three men shook hands. Bronco stared at Larabee as if he recognized him, but couldn't quite place him.

"Something wrong?" Larabee asked, disliking Bronco's scrutiny.

"Just trying to recollect where I know you from." Then he remembered, and laughed. "This fellow's a friend of yours, Vin? Don't that beat all?"

"You got a problem with us being friends?" the gunslinger asked him.

"A little funny, considering how we met… Sergeant Larabee."

"Sergeant?" Josiah repeated.

"You don't remember, Vin?" Bronco asked Larabee.

"Whatdaya mean? Chris and I jist met last year, in Arizona Territory," Vin said.

"Franklin, Tennessee," Bronco prompted their memories.

"We took a batch of prisoners at the Battle of Franklin," Buck remembered. "Hell, you mean we caught you and Vin?"

Bronco nodded. "Vin was wounded, so I reckon he weren't in much shape to pay attention. And if you're on the winning side, I guess one prisoner looks pretty much like another. When you're the one surrendering, though, you remember the last face you see as a free man."

"That gonna be a problem, Johnny Reb?" Chris asked Layne. "War's been over a while now."

Bronco shook his head. "If it ain't a problem for you, Billy Yank, it ain't a problem for me. Like you said, the war's been over a long time. I'm just here to help Vin, if I can."

Larabee nodded.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"The people of the state of Texas vs. Vincent Tanner, the Honorable Judge Daniel O'Malley presiding. All rise," ordered the bailiff.

Judge O'Malley sat down and banged his gavel. "Be seated. Is everyone ready? The prosecution may open their case."

Phil Carroll, the prosecutor, rose. "Your Honor, gentlemen of the jury, I intend to prove that the accused is a foul and cowardly murderer."

Vin stirred. Josiah, sitting beside him, laid his hand on Vin's arm to keep him calm and quiet. Behind him, Chris Larabee reached up and touched Vin's shoulder.

"He killed Jesse Kincaid, then ran. I intend to prove that, and then, gentlemen of the jury, I hope to see him swing." Carroll sat down.

Josiah rose. "A coward," he repeated. "A coward… Brethren, would a coward come to Texas of his own free will and turn himself in? Vin Tanner's a good man. He could've stayed where he was, just tried to avoid Tascosa, but he came back here to clear his name. Solomon said: 'Be assured, an evil man will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will be delivered.' Vin is trusting in you to deliver him from this false accusation that's hung above him far too long."

"Swear in the first witness," the judge directed. The bailiff did so.

"State your name for the court, please," Carroll ordered, "and then tell us what you know about Mr. Tanner."

"Hosea Kincaid. That low-down, no account bounty hunter killed my brother. Then he tried to pass Jess off as somebody else."

"I know it's a painful memory, but can you tell the court what happened?"

"Ain't likely to forget. That Tanner, he rode into town, bold as brass. Said he'd got Eli Joe. But it was my brother's body he had tied to his horse. When he found out he'd killed an innocent man, he lied and said he'd found the body."

"And what happened after that, Mr. Kincaid?"

"The coward broke out of jail and ran," Hosea Kincaid testified.

"He's lying," Vin whispered. "He was at the head of the lynch mob."

"And are you sure that the accused is the man who killed your brother?" Carroll asked. "Look at him. Be sure."

"That's him."

"No further questions, Your Honor."

"Mr. Sanchez," the judge invited Josiah to cross-examine the witness.

"Mr. Kincaid, I am truly sorry for your loss. It's a hard thing to bury a brother," Josiah began. "However, I have trouble believing that Vin Tanner killed him, so you're gonna have to convince me."

"You calling me a liar?" Hosea demanded.

"The Good Book says 'A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.' I'll remind you only once that you've taken Bible-oath to tell the truth. Now, how did you know that Vin Tanner killed your brother? You didn't see him do it, did you?"

Hosea shook his head.

"So how did you find out he was the one?"

"The sheriff said so."

Josiah turned to face Sheriff Harvey. "Him?"

"No, not Ted Harvey. The old sheriff, Alec Fleming."

"Does Sheriff Fleming still live in town?" the ex-preacher asked.

Hosea scoffed at his ignorance. "He died a year ago."

"So you're telling us what a man who can't speak for himself said." Josiah looked up at O'Malley. "Isn't that what they call hearsay?"

Judge O'Malley nodded.

"So just what is it that Sheriff Fleming said?" Josiah continued.

"That Tanner dragged Jesse's body into town and claimed he'd got Eli Joe. And then when he found out 'twas Jess, he lied and said he'd just found the body lying there."

"And that's what Sheriff Fleming said, or at least, what you say that Fleming said?" Josiah asked. "Are you sure that Vin claimed to have killed your brother?"

"Course I'm sure."

Josiah just nodded with the attitude of someone humoring someone else. "And you said Vin broke out of jail?"

"That's right."

"And you had nothing to do with him getting out?" Josiah asked the man.


"You didn't lead a lynch mob to break Vin out of jail and then try to kill him?" Josiah continued.

Hosea turned red. He sputtered, but said nothing.

"Didn't you trust the court? Or were you so eager for revenge that you didn't care who swung for your brother's death, so long as someone swung?"

"I ain't the one on trial here," Hosea protested.

"No further questions for this witness, Your Honor." Hosea started down from the witness box and Josiah added, "At this time."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"How did you catch Vin Tanner?" Carroll asked the sheriff.

"Didn't catch him; he turned himself in," Sheriff Ted Harvey replied.

The prosecutor frowned. Blood and guts made for a better trial than a man turning himself into the law voluntarily. "And what lies did he tell you when he showed up with his tail between his legs?"

"Objection." Josiah said. "You don't assume a man's lying unless you know him well enough to know whether he's honest or a liar. And anybody who says Vin Tanner went anywhere with his tail between his legs obviously don't know him at all."

"Sustained. The prosecution will refrain from slanderous opinions," the judge directed.

"Very well, what did Mr. Tanner say?" Carroll rephrased his question.

"He said he was wanted for killing Jess Kincaid, but he hadn't done it, and that he wanted to turn himself in," Sheriff Harvey explained.

"And did that match your memory of what happened when Jess Kincaid was killed?"

"No, sir, it didn't."

"And in your experience as a lawman, do innocent men usually turn themselves in for crimes they haven't committed?"

"No, sir."

"Your witness, Mr. Sanchez," Carroll invited.

"'A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer,'" Josiah began. "I'm sure that you, Sheriff Harvey, will be a truthful witness. You weren't sheriff when Kincaid was killed. Were you here in Tascosa at the time?"

"I was Fleming's deputy then, but I was in Austin when Kincaid got killed," Harvey explained.

Josiah bit his lip and hesitated a moment. "You said that Vin telling you he hadn't killed Kincaid, but wanting to turn himself in and clear his name didn't match your memory of what happened then. If you were in Austin at the time, how could you remember what happened here?"

"Heard all about it when I got back of course. The whole town couldn't talk of nothing else for weeks," Harvey replied.

"My experience has been, the more folk talk about something, the more different versions a story grows. Keeping in mind it's probably hearsay, and may not be admissible," the defrocked priest hedged his bets, "do you remember Alec Fleming saying that Vin said he killed Jess Kincaid? Or did Fleming tell you that Vin said he found the body? Not what the rest of the town was saying, what Sheriff Fleming said."

Harvey thought a moment, trying to remember who'd said what three years ago. "Alec said this feller claimed to have found the body, but that don't mean he was telling the truth. He could've lied to Alec. A man who hunts down other men for the price on their heads ain't necessarily gonna worry about the truth when there's money involved."

"Vin could've lied," Josiah allowed. "I doubt it, but I s'pose it's not impossible. No further questions, Your Honor."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Carroll called three reputable citizens to the stand. Each swore that Vin Tanner had killed Jess Kincaid. Each denied reluctantly, shame-faced, that a lynch mob had attempted to kill Vin the last time he was in Tascosa.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" asked the bailiff.

"I do." Bronco sat down next to the judge. "Most of you know me. I'm Bronco Layne; I work over at the Gilliland spread. I was in Montana when Jess Kincaid died, so I can't say much as to his death. But I can tell you that Vin Tanner didn't murder him. I served with Vin in the war, and a better man you'd have a hard time finding."

"The war was a long time ago, Mr. Layne," the prosecutor, Phil Carroll, reminded him. "People can change in that many years."

Bronco shook his head. "The only dishonest thing Vin Tanner ever did in his life was lying about his age so he could enlist."

A few of the jury laughed.

"Vin wouldn't shoot anyone in cold blood. In battle, or in self-defense, yes, but never in cold blood," Bronco said. "He's no murderer."

"That's your opinion, Mr. Layne," Carroll pointed out.

"Yes, it is. But most of you know me, and you know I'm a pretty fair judge of character."

The audience started murmuring amongst themselves, for most of them did know and trust Bronco Layne.

"Mr. Sanchez?" the judge invited Josiah to cross-examine the witness.

"No questions, Your Honor. I think Mr. Layne's said everything that needs saying."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Would you mind telling the court who you are, and how you know Vin Tanner?" Josiah asked, once the next witness had been sworn in.

"Chris Larabee. I met Vin about a year ago, when he stopped an innocent man from being lynched. Been friends ever since."

"What kind of a man would you say Vin Tanner is?"

"A good 'un," Larabee replied without hesitation. "I've never known him to lie or cheat. I've trusted him with my life more than once."

"Would you say he's a killer?" Josiah asked.

"He's killed men," Larabee acknowledged. "But never in cold blood. Always in self-defense, or protecting someone else. Vin's not a murderer. He said he didn't kill Jess Kincaid, and I believe him."

"Thank you." Josiah couldn't think of anything else to ask Larabee, so he nodded at Carroll, indicating it was now his turn.

"Mr. Larabee, it's mighty nice of you to come all the way from Arizona to Texas just to act as a character witness for your friend," Carroll began.

Larabee kept a poker face Ezra Standish would've been proud of, but inside, he was frowning. Having the prosecutor compliment him just didn't feel right.

"Of course, I'm not sure how much credence the honest citizens of Tascosa will put into the word of a hired gunman, speaking as to the honesty and reliability of a bounty hunter," Carroll continued.

Larabee said nothing.

"Do you deny you're a hired gun?" Carroll dared him.

"Ain't denying nothing. 'Till now, you hadn't asked a question." A few of the spectators chuckled and the blond continued, "Used to be a hired gun… Used to be a schoolmaster, too, and a soldier before that. Used to have a little spread where I raised horses. I've done a lot of things in my life."

Vin whispered to Josiah, "Chris used to be a schoolmaster?"

Josiah shrugged and whispered back, "He never mentioned it to me."

"But you were a hired gun," Carroll persisted.

Larabee nodded. "Used to be."

Carroll turned to face the jury. "One cold-blooded killer for hire vouching for another. Given their backgrounds, gentlemen, can you trust either one of them?"

"I had to come," Larabee interrupted. "I'm the reason Vin can't clear his name." That statement caught the entire courtroom by surprise. The situation was too serious for him to risk smiling, but he was pleased with himself for stealing Carroll's thunder. "Vin's been looking for Eli Joe for a while, since he was the only one who could clear his name. Found him a few months ago. He tried to kill Vin, and I had to shoot him to save Vin's life."

"So we have Tanner's claiming that Eli Joe shot Jess Kincaid and now you claim you shot this Eli Joe. And my worthy opponent complained of my witnesses relying on hearsay testimony. How do we even know this Eli Joe even existed, other than in Mr. Tanner's imagination?" the prosecutor asked.

Sheriff Harvey coughed. Carroll turned around. "Um, Eli Joe was real. Murderer, bandit… hunted for him myself."

Carroll frowned at the interruption.

"You can check with the sheriff of Winstead. We shipped the body there," Larabee said. "Eli Joe could've cleared Vin, but he's dead. And," he added in an icy tone, "I don't cotton to anyone implying I'm a liar."

Chris Larabee's reputation preceded him. Carroll looked nervous.

Judge O'Malley pulled out his pocket watch. "It is now ten minutes before noon. This court is adjourned for lunch. We will reconvene at two o'clock." He banged his gavel on the desk.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The door to the sheriff's office opened. Larabee looked up, expecting Buck and Josiah with lunch. Judge Orin Travis stepped inside.

"What are you doing here?" Larabee demanded.

"JD can't lie worth a damn," the judge replied.

Larabee nodded, needing no further explanation.

"Well, Mr. Tanner, I wondered when you would get around to turning yourself in and trying to clear your name," Judge Travis said.

"Y' mean y' knew?" Vin asked, sitting inside the cell.

The gray-haired man nodded.

The bounty hunter shook his head. "Guess I should've known I couldn't hide nuthin' from y', Judge."

Travis smiled. "Guess you should have." He glanced around the jail cell where Vin was held. "They treating you all right, Mr. Tanner?"

"Yes, sir, they have."

"I understand Josiah Sanchez has been acting as your attorney. Would you have any objection to my assisting him?"

Blue eyes looked up at the judge, amazed. "You'd do that fer me?"

"I'm a little hurt you didn't ask," replied the judge. "Now then, suppose you bring me up to date on the particulars of the case. Tell me all the details of what happened a few years ago, and then tell me what's happened in court so far…."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"The court will now reconvene," the bailiff announced.

"May I have leave to address the court?" Judge Travis asked.

"Orin Travis! What the Hell– Er, what are you doing here?" Judge O'Malley questioned. "Gotta warn you, you're out of your jurisdiction."

"With the court's permission, I'd like to assist Mr. Sanchez in representing Mr. Tanner," Travis said.

"I object," Carroll protested.

"If it does not please the court, then I shall merely act as a character witness for the defense," Travis continued as though the prosecutor hadn't interrupted.

"Objection overruled. And if this were anything but a murder case, I'd say that Orin Travis' word would be enough to release the defendant," Judge O'Malley announced. "However, this is a murder case, and I don't want to prejudice the jury. The Honorable Orin Travis is hereby recognized as co-counsel for the defense. And my congratulations to Mr. Tanner. It's not every man who gets one of the finest legal minds west of the Mississippi for an attorney."

"Easy, Daniel, you'll make me blush," Travis warned jocularly.

"Objection. Conflict of interest – this new attorney is obviously a friend of Your Honor's."

"Judge Travis is well known to every judge this side of St. Louis," O'Malley pointed out. "You, at least, should have heard of him, even if you haven't met him personally. However, if you object to a judge being on friendly terms with the lawyers who appear before him in court, I will cease the practice of buying you a whiskey when I'm in town."

The spectators laughed.

"I withdraw the objection."

"Thought you might," Judge O'Malley muttered.

"Your Honor, the defense would like to recall Hosea Kincaid," Travis announced.

"You're still under oath, Mr. Kincaid," Judge O'Malley reminded the man as came up to the witness' stand.

"Mr. Kincaid, I hope you'll forgive me if I review some this morning's testimony." By way of explanation, Travis added, "My stage was delayed."

Kincaid nodded, but he bore a suspicious expression.

"Now, you said Mr. Tanner brought in your brother's body, claiming it was Eli Joe."

"That's right."

"And you said he escaped before he could be tried for your brother's murder?" Kincaid nodded again, and Travis continued, "How did he escape?"

"Huh? How should I know?"

"You didn't help him escape?" Travis asked the man.

"Why would I do a damn-fool thing like that? I wanted him t' hang from the nearest tree, not out there runnin' free."

"Why indeed," Travis murmured in a stage whisper. "But you wanted him hanging from the nearest tree, and a trial might have acquitted him. Is that why you removed him from the relative safety of his jail cell and tried to lynch him?"

"He weren't lynched," Kincaid protested, ignoring the rest of the judge's accusations.

"Not for lack of trying." Travis walked to the defense table and picked up a newspaper. "Are you familiar with the town of San Miguel, sir?"

"Of course I am. It's thirty miles from here."

"I passed through San Miguel on my way to Tascosa. I picked this up there. This is a three year old copy of the San Miguel Messenger. It declares, in black and white, that Vin Tanner was forcibly taken from his jail cell in Tascosa, that a mob attempted to string him up, and that he escaped on a stolen horse. Do you still wish to deny that there was an attempted lynching, Mr. Kincaid?"

"I ain't on trial here. That murdering skunk is," Kincaid replied.

"No, you're not on trial," Travis conceded. "But you are under oath, Mr. Kincaid. And if this newspaper report is accurate, you're guilty of perjury. A matter I'll let Judge O'Malley and Sheriff Harvey handle. No further questions." He turned to face O'Malley. "Your Honor, the defense would like to call the defendant at this time: Mr. Vin Tanner."

The long-haired tracker hesitated a moment before going forward to be sworn in.

"It's all right, brother. Just tell the truth and shame the devil," Josiah whispered to him.

Vin nodded and forced himself to approach the bench.

"All right, Vin. Now it's your turn to tell your side of the story," Travis invited him quietly.

Vin took a deep breath. "All I ever wanted was someone t' listen t' m' side of the story… 'Bout three years ago, I's huntin' a man named Eli Joe. Had a good description of him… was on his trail. I come across a body that matched his description. He'd been shot in the back, 'n' from ev'rythin' I heard 'bout Eli Joe, he seemed the sort 'a fella likely t' die that way. I fetched the body back t' town."

"What happened then?" Travis asked him.

"The sheriff was right upset. Turned out the fella wasn't Eli Joe. It was Jess Kincaid, his cousin."

"Eli Joe's cousin?" Judge Travis probed.

Vin shook his head. "The sheriff's cousin."

"The sheriff's cousin," Orin Travis repeated. "Odd that no one mentioned that before – that Sheriff Fleming was related to Mr. Kincaid."

Chris Larabee turned around and looked at the spectators. He saw guilt in more than one pair of eyes, and too many sheepish expressions.

"Please continue, Mr. Tanner. What happened next?"

"Well, the sheriff locked me up 'til he could look into things. Leastways, that's what he said. A while later, he left t' go fetch his dinner. While Fleming was gone, a batch 'a folks gathered outside the jail. That one…" Vin pointed at Hosea Kincaid. "…was the leader of the bunch. He took the key from the sheriff's desk – didn't have t' hunt fer it none, neither. Knew jist which drawer t' fetch it from. They grabbed me and pulled me outside… Had a rope waitin'."

Larabee turned around and fixed Kincaid with a steely gaze. His hazel-green eyes promised retribution.

"I broke away, grabbed the nearest horse, 'n' ran. I got outta Texas, an' I ain't been back since."

"Why did you come back now?" Travis asked him.

"Got tired 'a havin' a price on m' head fer somethin' I didn't do… M' ma taught me t' be proud 'a m' name, 'a bein' a Tanner. I wanted t' clear m' name."

Josiah rose and quoted, "'A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.'"

Judge Travis nodded. If he were annoyed by his co-counsel's interruption, he said nothing. Instead, he replied with a quotation of his own. "'Who steals my purse, steals trash… 'tis mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name… makes me poor indeed.'" He turned to face the jury. "Mr. Tanner's good name was stolen from him when he was accused of a crime three years ago, and not given an opportunity to set things straight. Now he has risked his life by riding into a town that tried to lynch him previously, in order to clear his name. If he were a guilty man, he would be foolish to return here. The smartest thing he could have done was avoid the state of Texas entirely, and try to keep his head down, perhaps make a new life for himself under an alias. But he chose not to… because he is not guilty."

Travis turned and pointed to Bronco. "You've heard from Mr. Tanner's commanding officer during the Ci–" Remembering which side Texas had taken during the war, he hastily corrected himself. "–The War Between the States. Mr. Tanner was a private during the war. No private ever got rich in the Army."

A few of the spectators laughed. Others nodded their agreement.

"After the war, Mr. Tanner was an Army scout, a buffalo hunter and, eventually, a bounty hunter. None of these are overpaid occupations. Mr. Tanner is not a wealthy man. The only wealth he desires is to have his reputation restored and his good name cleared of this stain."

Judge Travis took his seat and Phil Carroll stood to cross-examine Vin.

"During our lunch recess, Sheriff Harvey was kind enough to fetch me a wanted poster of Eli Joe. Mid- to late-twenties, medium height, slim build, long, narrow face, light blue eyes, long, stringy brown hair. Jess Kincaid had curly hair and black eyes. If you were a professional bounty hunter, how did you not notice the difference? Mr. Tanner, how did you mistake curly hair for straight stringy hair and pale blue eyes for black?" Without waiting for an answer, Carroll turned to address the jury, "Gentlemen, Mr. Tanner didn't notice because he didn't care. As long as he brought a body back, he was satisfied."

"Couldn't read then," Vin confessed reluctantly. "Ain't much good at m' letters yet. I's told he had long brown hair. The sheriff who read the poster t' me didn't mention whether it was straight or curly. As fer his eyes, they's closed when I got there."

Larabee raised a blond eyebrow. He'd known that Vin didn't like to read; he'd offered to lend a book or share a newspaper with the tracker many times, and had always been turned down. He hadn't known that Vin couldn't read. He tried to remember whether or not he'd ever mentioned the year he'd spent teaching in a one-room prairie schoolhouse to his friend. He would have been happy to teach Vin to read, if only he'd known.

"And you still persist in this ridiculous story that you found Kincaid and brought him in? Do you really expect anyone to believe that?" Carroll demanded.

"If'n I's gonna lie, I'd've made up a better story," Vin retorted. "I'm tellin' y' the truth."

Carroll hesitated. He had wanted to accuse Tanner of making up the lynch mob story, to point out that the witnesses who had said there was no attempted lynching were solid, upstanding citizens of the community. Unfortunately, Travis and his three-year-old newspaper borrowed from the Messenger's archives had spoiled that argument.

"And Eli Joe, the real murderer, is only one who could verify your story. What a pity that your friend the hired gun shot him dead. Perhaps he would have backed up your story. Or, perhaps…" Carroll raised his voice dramatically. "…he'd have a very different story to tell, and that's why Larabee killed him."

Buck laid a hand on Chris's shoulder, forcibly keeping him in his seat.

"I caught Eli Joe, 'n' I's gonna bring him back here t' tell the truth. But he pulled a knife on me 'n' was gonna kill me. Chris didn't have no choice but t' shoot him."

"But you have no witnesses to this other than a hired gun. And you have no witness at all that you didn't kill Jess Kincaid."

"Ain't got no witness that I didn't kill Kincaid," Vin agreed. "But y' ain't got no witness I did. Y' gonna call me 'n' m' friends liars again, 'cause 'm gettin' right tired of it."

Travis hid a grin.

"Indeed, Mr. Carroll, the court is curious as to whether the prosecution's strategy has more substance than merely accusing the defendant and his witnesses of falsehood. Especially," Judge O'Malley added pointedly, "as several of the prosecution's witnesses were caught committing perjury."

"Your Honor, the prosecution… the prosecution is ready to rest its case," Carroll replied hastily.

"Has the defense any more witnesses or evidence to introduce?"

Travis looked at Josiah. The ex-preacher shook his head. "The defense rests, Your Honor."

"Very well, please sum up your cases for the jury," O'Malley directed.

"Gentlemen of the jury, three years ago, Tanner escaped justice. Now you have the chance to set things right. Justice demands that Vin Tanner pay for the murder – the cowardly murder – of Jess Kincaid. Gentlemen, Vin Tanner is nothing but a no-account bounty hunter, a man-hunter who didn't care whom he killed so long as he got his thirty pieces of silver. It is your duty, your obligation, to see that he swings for his craven, criminal deeds," Carroll declaimed dramatically.

Travis stepped forward and addressed the jurors much more calmly. "Gentlemen of the jury, it is your duty to find Vin Tanner either guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or to acquit him. Not to be one hundred percent certain that he's guilty, for nothing in life is completely certain, but beyond a reasonable doubt. If, after hearing this testimony, you harbor doubts that Vin Tanner killed Jesse Kincaid in cold blood, then the law requires that you release him.

"You've heard testimony, some of it hearsay. You've heard opinion. There is no hard evidence; there are no witnesses." Judge Travis paced in front of the jurors' box. "Vin Tanner was hunting Eli Joe. He followed his trail. He found a body which matched the description he'd been given of Eli Joe, and brought that body back to Tascosa. Never, at any time, did he claim he'd killed the man he brought in.

"Unfortunately, that dead man was not Eli Joe, but Jesse Kincaid, whom Eli Joe had killed because of the slight resemblance between them. He knew he had a bounty hunter on his trail, and he hoped to throw him off.

"When Vin Tanner reached Tascosa, Kincaid's friends and family were outraged by his senseless death – a perfectly natural reaction. Vin Tanner was a stranger to them; they chose not to believe him. And, unwilling to allow the law take its rightful course, they attempted to lynch him.

"Now, self-preservation is a natural instinct, as every one of you know. Mr. Tanner ran for his life. No one, I think, could fault him for that.

"At that point, Mr. Tanner made his mistake. He should have turned himself into the sheriff in the next town, gotten help somewhere where passions over Kincaid's death didn't run so high. But Vin Tanner is young now, and he was younger still three years ago. You don't find an old head on young shoulders. However, he has done now what he should have done then. He has turned himself in to let justice run its course." Travis turned to Josiah. "Does my worthy co-counsel have anything to add?"

"'When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers,'" Josiah quoted. "Vin Tanner came here seeking justice, knowing he might die if he didn't find it. All he wants is to clear his name and live as a free man. 'And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free.'"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Jury's been out quite a while," Josiah commented. "That a good sign or a bad one?"

Buck shook his head. "Don't know."

"The horses are ready," Larabee announced softly. The stakes were higher now that Judge Travis had gotten himself involved in the case. If they had to help Vin escape, the judge wouldn't take the matter lightly. He was unlikely to forgive them, which meant they might as well run with Vin.

And they wouldn't be able to go back to Four Corners.

The gunslinger tried not to think about the possibility of never seeing Mary Travis again. She deserved better than a man who walked in Death's shadow, anyhow.

"I'm praying we won't need the horses," Josiah said.

"Doesn't hurt to be ready." Larabee would never admit it, but he'd done some praying, too – something he hadn't done in years. But he'd be damned if he'd let Vin swing for a murder he hadn't committed. If that meant running south to Mexico with him, well, he could just learn to speak Spanish. But he hoped and prayed, for his sake as well as Vin's, that it wouldn't come to that. He'd found something in Four Corners he hadn't had – or wanted – since Sarah and Adam had been killed. Roots.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

For three hours they sat and waited for the jury to return. Vin had been sitting silently for the past half-hour. Larabee reached out and placed his hand on the tracker's shoulder.

Vin turned his head, glancing at the older man, and nodded.

No words passed between them. None were needed.

The bailiff hurried into the empty courtroom. "Jury's comin' back." He half-walked, half-ran over to the saloon, where most of the spectators were waiting.

Ten minutes later, Judge O'Malley banged his gavel. "Court is now back in session. Gentlemen of the jury, have you come to a verdict?"

Joe Norman, the jury foreman, stood up. "We have, Your Honor."

Vin took a deep breath.

"I wish we were in Scotland," Judge Travis muttered to himself. They would have a much better chance of getting a "not proven" verdict than acquitting Vin outright. Still, he and Josiah had done their best. Now they had to trust the judicial system to do its work.

"We, the jury, find the defendant, Vincent Tanner, not guilty of murdering Jesse Kincaid."

"All right!" Buck yelled.

"Hallelujah!" Josiah cried out, slapping Tanner on the back.

Vin and Chris just sat, speechless.

Judge Travis leaned back in his chair, exhaled, and allowed himself a slight smile.

Judge O'Malley banged his gavel. "This court acquits Vin Tanner of the charge of murder, and orders that he be released."

Bronco hurried to the front of the courtroom. He slapped Vin on the back. "Let's go to the saloon. I'm buyin'. None of that rotgut, neither. Best whisky in the house. Hell, champagne if they got it."

"You can get the second round," Chris told him. "I'm buying the first round." He smiled at Vin. "Congratulations, pard."

All Vin could do was nod.