"Chris Larabee, you have been found guilty of murder. As personally distasteful as I find my duty on this occasion, it is nevertheless the verdict of this court that you be hanged by the neck until..."
"Hold it, judge. Ya can't hang an innocent man."
"This was a fair trial, Vin. You know that." Judge Travis sounded more tired than angry. Even though normally he don't tolerate no foolishness in his courtroom.
"No. Couldn't have been. You ain't been told somethin' real important about that night. Somethin' that'll prove Chris couldn't have done it."
"If you're going to confess to the murder, yourself..."
"Would ya believe me?"
"Well it's a good thing that ain't what I'm talkin' about, then."
"Vin. There ain't nothing you can say now. Let it go." Chris's low voice could still cut through just about anything short of a tornado.
"No, Chris. I aim to tell the truth. It's better than bein' dead."
"What truth would this be, Vin?" The Judge was bangin' his gavel like there was no tomorrow. There might not be for Chris if'n this didn't work.
Everyone in that courtroom was lookin' at me now. They'd started in to chatterin' like magpies when I first got to my feet and told the Judge he couldn't hang Chris, but now they were quiet. Quiet as the grave. That thought put some steel back in my spine. This had to be done and there wasn't no one else to do it.
I looked over at Chris. His green eyes were shootin' such sparks in my direction that I almost reached up to see if my hair had caught on fire. He couldn't know what I was gonna say. 'sides, what did it matter, anyway? It was better than bein' dead, dammit. And he had the nerve to tell me I was in a hurry to get myself hung.
I could feel Ezra and Buck shift slightly beside me. JD, Nathan and Josiah were behind me. Ready to back me. But after I'd said my piece, I wasn't sure I'd be able to count on them helpin' anymore. Only one way to find out, I reckon.
"Chris couldn't have done it, cause he was with me that night." There. I'd said it. But not all of it. Behind me I could hear Nathan and Josiah sigh heavily. JD made a funny kind of noise, like you do when you don't want to be cryin' in front of everyone. Ezra whispered a few words so soft that even I couldn't hear what they were and Buck just shook his head. That's cause they'd all heard the same thing I had during the whole damn trial. No one had seen Chris that night. His horse hadn't been in the livery stable. His black shirt had a piece tore off of it that matched the piece of black material the victim had been holdin' in his hand. And Chris had a grudge against the dead guy bigger than the whole damn territory. Everyone in town had heard Chris threaten to shoot the bastard the day before they'd found his body with a nice sized bullet hole in it. Case closed.
Chris's story didn't sound near as convincin', I had to admit. He'd ridden out early the day of the murder and spent the night alone at his shack with a bottle of whiskey. He didn't know how his shirt had gotten a piece torn off like that. Said he hadn't worn it for a while. Said he was innocent. And we all said we believed him.
I'm bettin' that he could see a different truth in our eyes, though. We had our doubts - all of us. And except for Miss Nettie and Casey and Mrs. Potter and maybe ol' Yosemite, none of the town folk even bothered to pretend they believed him. I wasn't too sure what the judge and Mrs. Travis thought. The only thing I knew was that they didn't want to see him hang, neither.
We'd tried like hell to find us some evidence that would clear Chris. But it was tough goin'. The dead fella had been young, good lookin' and full of charm. Not exactly the picture of a cold blooded killer like Chris had said. And he had a whole passel of rich friends and relatives who were out for Chris's blood. So we hadn't had much time before the trial began. Just like now. There was no time. The Judge was already shaking his head, ready to dismiss what I'd said.
"Perjury, even in a good cause, is still a crime, Vin." Judge Travis gave me a look.
"Larabee told a different story." I recognized that voice. The dead fella's cousin. Little pissmire.
"If'n the two of you were together that night, why didn't you say something before?" I didn't know that voice. Didn't matter who it was, anyway. Everyone was wonderin' the same thing. Even my friends.
"I was hopin' the jury could see the truth of the matter without my havin' to speak out." This was harder than I'd thought it would be. I could feel the sweat tricklin' down the back of my neck and it seemed like I could actually feel everyone's eyes on my skin. Crawlin' on me like them stingin' ants. I hate bein' looked at.
"Seems to me they did see the truth. What are trying to do, Tanner?" I'd never liked Will Hamlin. He enjoyed his job far too much. Ezra said once that he was a persecutor rather than a prosecutor. I think Ez was right.
"I will ask the questions here." Judge Travis's voice rumbled like thunder and everyone settled down a bit. They didn't want to risk bein' thrown outta the courtroom.
"Why didn't you speak up before, Vin? I have to admit, this does sound a bit too convenient."
"Convenient don't mean not true."
"No. But I don't see how Chris could have been with you as you say. People saw you in town that evening and Chris has said, under oath, that he was out at his shack."
"We were both here in town."
"You're going to have to give me a few more details, Mr. Tanner. Are you saying that Chris lied about his whereabouts that night? That he would rather hang than speak the truth?" The judge didn't sound like he believed a word I was sayin', even though I could see in his eyes that he wished things were different. Well, I hadn't told him everything yet.
"Well, he may prefer to hang Judge, but it ain't up to just him."
"Vin..." Chris's voice was half warning, half - hell if I knew what the other half was.
"Sorry, Chris. But it ain't just your secret."
"What isn't?" More than one person asked me that question, but I never took my eyes off the Judge.
"The fact that me and Chris Larabee are lovers and he spent the night of the murder in my bed. That's how I know he's innocent."
"The fact that me and Chris are lovers and he spent the night of the murder in my bed. That's how I know he's innocent."
Dear Lord. I do believe our Mr. Tanner is insane.
Either insane or the most foolishly quixotic hero that ever tilted at windmills.
Unless he's telling the truth. Dear Lord. I do believe Mr. Tanner is most definitely insane.
"Chris, is this true? And before you answer me, let me remind you that the penalties for perjury are severe."
Mr. Larabee had been staring at Vin with a look that promised dire retribution. Now he slowly turned his head to look at the Judge.
Everyone in the entire room appeared to lean forward, awaiting his answer. Even Mr. Keane's family and associates were silent for the moment.
"Yes. It's true."
"Then in light of this new testimony, I declare the defendant to be a free man. Case dismissed."
"You can't do that, Judge! They're lying!" It appeared the deceased's family had recovered the use of their voices. A veritable cacophony of sound arose as everyone began to debate the issue.
"I don't believe this is something a man would lie about in open court. Would any of you?" Judge Travis had to raise his voice to be heard. There was a sudden drop in noise level as everyone considered this, before it redoubled in volume.
While the rest of the court was engaged in open debate, Judge Travis, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Jackson and I escorted the newly free Mr. Larabee out of the courtroom. JD and Josiah had stayed behind, along with Mr. Wilmington, in order to ensure that things did not get too out of hand.
The Judge marched everyone straight into the jailhouse. At the moment I don't think he cared overly much if the sight brought back unwelcome memories for any of us.
"I don't know what the hell is going on here and I don't care! What you do in the privacy of your own bed is your business. But don't any of you ever play fast and loose with the law like that when you're in my courtroom. Is that understood?" The Judge could be truly impressive when he was angry.
Chris shook his head, lips tight. "I can't say I have much respect for the law right now."
"The law isn't perfect, Chris. But it's all we have."
"And God help any of us who need it." Chris's voice was sharp. Bitter. And I couldn't blame him. Neither apparently, could the Judge.
"We'd better hope He helps us get through the next few days at least. Maybe longer. I don't know what's going to happen, but I know there's going to be trouble." The Judge sat down, sighing and shaking his head wearily. He looked older than I'd ever seen him.
"I'm sorry if I caused ya problems, Judge. But I'd do the same thing next time." Vin spoke for the first time since making his rather shocking pronouncement. His arms were folded and he had a look on his face that bore a striking resemblance to a mule I'd once come across.
"Dammit, Vin. What the hell did you think you were doing in there?" Mr. Larabee's attention was focused on the tracker now. Vin was a braver man than I. He stood his ground without flinching.
"Tellin' the truth."
"Truth." Chris fell silent and I exchanged an uneasy glance with our resident healer. I wasn't certain any of us knew the truth.
"The only truth that oughtta matter right now is that you're a free man, Chris." Nathan finally said, after a quick look at the Judge.
"Yes. He's free. And no matter how it came about, I'm not sorry to see it happen." The Judge rose to his feet and held out his hand to Chris.
"I know you did your best, Judge. Especially since you had your doubts about my innocence." Chris finally took the proffered hand, his gaze challenging.
"I still do. But they're not enough to keep me from sleeping at night."
"I've got to get back to the courtroom right now. And I have to leave tomorrow morning. Can you boys handle things?"
"Ain't got no choice. Don't worry about us none, Judge." Somehow Mr. Tanner's words failed to reassure. But like he had said, we didn't have much choice.
We were all silent for a moment after the Judge had left. No doubt we were all thinking the same thing, but no one wanted to be the first to bring it up. Were Chris and Vin really lovers? Or had that been mere fabrication on their part in order to save Mr. Larabee's neck? Literally.
I wasn't entirely certain which version I wanted to be true. Judge Travis wasn't the only one who had entertained doubts as to Mr. Larabee's innocence. If Vin had been telling the truth, then I could lay those doubts to rest. But I would have to accept the fact that he and Mr. Larabee shared a physical relationship. If he had been lying, then I was right back where I had started. So would I rather our illustrious leader be a murderer or a fornicator? Such an abundance of choices.
Life used to be so much simpler. When everything was merely a question of money and the best way to go about acquiring said money. Of course, it's still mostly about money. But not all. Not anymore. I just knew I should never have agreed to this job. Pardon be damned.
"So, Mr. Tanner. Any more surprises in store for us?" I could no longer stand the silence.
"Well, I reckon not, since ya knew I was lyin' about me and Chris, right?"
"So you and Mr. Larabee are not errr... lovers? I... "
"Would it matter if we were?" Chris snapped, interrupting.
"Not unless you weren't planning on inviting me to the wedding." My words were light enough, but I couldn't quite meet his eyes. Because I wasn't certain if it would matter or not. And I wasn't certain I believed Mr. Tanner now or whether I believed what he had said back in the courtroom.
"What about you, Nathan?" Chris turned to the healer, green eyes heavy with anger and contempt.
"I reckon it don't matter what I think, Chris."
"But I just told ya'll it ain't true, Nate." Vin gave the healer a puzzled look.
"Once something's been said, you can't take it back. People are always gonna wonder. And you can't go around tellin' everyone you lied, anyway."
"You don't believe me?"
"I don't know."
"Jesus, Nathan. I can't believe you'd think me and Chris... that we..." A slow flush of color began creeping up the tracker's face.
"People will believe just about anything, Vin." We all flinched at the ice in Chris's voice. We were guilty as charged. He knew we hadn't fully believed his version of events the night of Keane's murder. And now we knew he knew.
"Like I said, none of that matters now. What matters is how we're going to get through the next few days til all the dust settles." Mr. Jackson was nothing if not practical.
"You so sure it will?"
"Mind if we join ya?" We all turned at the sound of Buck's voice.
"The more the merrier. Although I'm afraid this party is turning out to be a rather somber affair." I stepped forward, taking refuge in the familiar, comfortable badinage. Emotions were so messy. Not to mention tiresome.
"Come on in boys. Might as well find out where we all stand right here and now." Mr. Larabee's party skills could use a bit of polishing.
"In a bed of quicksand." I could hear Nathan mutter the words under his breath. As apt a description as any.
It didn't look like much of a party to me. What was the word Ez used? Somber? Hell, I would've said downright unneighborly. Chris had looked happier when the jury voted him guilty. Vin looked like maybe he was havin' second thoughts about speakin' up back in the courtroom. Nate was standin' there avoidin' everyone's eye and Ez was tryin' too damn hard to act like nothin' had changed.
Well, things had changed. Chris was a free man. No hanging. No last minute jailbreak. No life on the run. So he'd have to face some talk. Maybe a few people might give him and Vin the cold shoulder. Who the hell cared? It was better than bein' dead. Besides, we all knew it wasn't true. What Vin had said.
It wasn't true. Vin was just sayin' that cause he didn't want to see Chris hang. Bein' a true blue friend. If I'd thought of it first, I would've done the same thing. Wouldn't I? But I didn't think of it. I'd thought of bustin' Chris out of jail and headin' for Mexico. I'd thought of ways to try and find evidence clearin' his name. I'd thought of a lot of things. But I'd never thought of that. And neither had any of the others. Except Vin. Shit. What if it was true?
Well hell. Why did I care if it was? Less competition for the ladies. Chris could be a charmer when he chose. So if he was choosin' to charm Vin, it was no skin off my nose, right? But still, it was hard to look the two of 'em in the eye with these thoughts runnin' through my head.
"JD and Josiah should be along directly." I stepped a bit closer to Chris, forcing myself to meet his familiar green gaze.
"So what's your version of the truth, Buck? Am I guilty of murder? Am I something worse? No one seems to know for sure." Chris's voice felt like shards of glass cuttin' into me.
"Goddammit, Chris. Would you have been happier if I'd let ya hang?" There was something in the tracker's voice that I couldn't quite place. Wasn't sure I wanted to even try.
"I would've been happier if my so called friends had believed me when I said I was innocent."
"We did believe ya, Chris. We do believe ya. Just like we know Vin was just sayin' that about the two of you so you wouldn't hang. Right fellas?" I glanced around, feelin' the need for some back up. No one said anything. Damn them. Damn me. Damn all of us.
"Yeah, Buck. I can see how much everyone believes." Chris laughed bitterly. I didn't know what to say. Reckon there wasn't much I could say. He was right. Even I didn't really know quite what to believe and I'd known him longer than any of the rest.
"Maybe there's a few things we don't understand, Chris. But I reckon there's something you need to understand. I can't speak for the others, but it don't matter one way or the other to me. If you shot that fella, then I expect you had a good reason. And if you and Vin are keepin' company, well I expect you got your reasons for that, too." It was mostly the truth, what I'd just said. I was glad of that.
"It should matter." Chris's words were still ornerier than a badger with a sore toe, but his eyes had warmed a bit. It was a start. For both of us.
"You ain't God, to be tellin' a man what should matter and what shouldn't." Vin all but hissed the words in Chris's direction. He was as mad as I'd ever seen him.
"You're talking to me about playing God?" Chris curled his lip and gave Vin a hard stare.
"This is all very entertaining gentlemen, watching you rip one another to shreds like this, but unfortunately it is not to the point at the moment."
"Ezra's right." Nathan always looked faintly surprised every time he said those words. Which wasn't often. Ol' Ez wasn't so bad, though. No worse than the rest of us, anyway.
"Why thank you, Mr. Jackson." Ez inclined his head a bit in Nate's direction. Then he swept his arms in this dramatic kind of gesture towards the door. Ez likes drama. "Out there is what we should be concerned with at the moment. Dealing with our personal alliances and philosophies shall have to wait til a more convenient time, I'm afraid."
"What exactly is it that you think we should do, Ezra?" Chris's voice had that silky soft quality that always meant trouble.
"You're our de facto leader, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps it is time you began once again acting in that capacity." Score one for Ez.
"Leader? It appears that I'm bound for Hell. Didn't know everyone was so anxious to follow me there."
"You could try coming to church this Sunday. I can preach a special sermon on the pros and cons of reigning in hell versus serving in Heaven for you. A man shouldn't decide those kinds of things til he has all the information." Josiah's voice made us all jump.
"Maybe you oughtta preach a message on tolerance and understanding instead, Josiah." Nathan sighed.
I had a feelin' Nathan was right. Those two things seemed to be in short supply around here. I'd heard enough talk from the folks in the courtroom to know that.
"And how are the good people of this town taking the news of Mr. Larabee's release?" Ez could ask the question as nice and purty as he liked, but the answer to it was gonna be just as ugly.
"How the mighty have fallen seemed to be a favorite theme. Among others." Yeah. Others that were even worse than that.
"So they want to run me out of town on a rail. They can try." Chris's eyes were glitterin' and he was wearin' that half crazy look he got sometimes. The one he'd wore for a long time after Sarah and Adam had died. The one I hadn't seen since we'd took up together, all of us, in this town.
"They said you and Vin were perv... perv..." JD couldn't quite bring himself to say the word. He didn't have to. We all knew what it was.
"And the ones that weren't saying that were saying we were damned liars and murderers. Ain't that right, JD?"
"Yeah, Vin. That's right." JD's voice was so soft I could hardly hear him. Poor kid had almost fainted clean away when Vin had stood up in the courtroom and said he and Chris were lovers.
"Josiah?" Chris waited.
"Judge not lest ye be judged."
"It's that simple for you?"
"No. But I don't expect it's that simple for you, either. Or Vin."
"JD?" I watched as the kid unconsciously straightened his shoulders. He'd face Chris like a man even if he died of embarrassment.
"I guess I'm just glad you ain't gonna hang, Chris. And I'm glad I don't have to help bust you out of jail, either. I like being sheriff and I don't think they'd have let me keep my job if I helped you escape."
Ezra was the first one to laugh. Then we all joined in. Nothin' had really been settled between us and there was still the town to deal with, but still. A man sometimes had to take what he could get.
"United we stand. Divided we fall." Ezra and Josiah were always quotin' something from one book or another.
"Let's hope it's the first one Brother, and not the second." Josiah shook his head, the laughter disappearing as quickly as it had arrived.
"I guess we'll find out soon enough." Vin said grimly.
I guessed we would.
I reckoned we'd be seein' plenty these next few days and weeks all right. Most of it bad.
It was an effort to even stand up, so I planted myself in one of the chairs nearby. Josiah was sittin' in the other one. I could tell he was worried about something. And that worried me. It took a powerful lot to get that man het up.
But there was reason enough to be worried, even if I didn't want to admit it. I know I was tired to the bone. We all were after the last few weeks. The murder. Chris's arrest. The trial. Riding hard night and day tryin' to find some evidence that would show he didn't do it. Fightin' off all those doubts that plagued us about whether he really was innocent. Tryin' to decide if it mattered to us or not. And now Vin sayin' that he and Chris were lovers and then sayin' they weren't and Chris not sayin' anything one way or another. Dammit, why did these men always have to complicate everything?
Ezra with his quicksilver morality. Just when he has me thinkin' there ain't no hope for him, he does something good. Buck with his devil may care ways sometimes showin' us he has a deeper side to him than he lets on. JD actin' like a green kid and then turnin' around and teachin' us all a lesson about being a man. Josiah with his cockeyed spiritual worldliness. And then there's Chris and Vin. An innocent man wanted for murder and a maybe not so innocent man no longer wanted for murder. Now the two of 'em are bound by truth and lies and I'm not certain even they know which is which. And I ain't forgettin' about myself. I know just how deep my own scars run. And I ain't talkin' about the ones on my back. Complicated didn't do the bunch of us justice.
So what were we complicated fellas gonna do about things? That's what we were tryin' to decide.
The crowd in the courthouse had been sent about their business by the Judge, with some help from JD and Buck and Josiah. But a good portion of 'em seemed to consider this whole mess their business. We could see them gathered outside the jail, waitin'. Talkin'. Wantin' to get a gander at the two "funny cowboys" in our midst. Or, if they was on the other side of the fence, the liar and the murderer. I wasn't sure which was worse.
I'd heard of men bein' with men before. I'd even seen it a time or two. But I just wasn't comfortable with it. Didn't seem right. I wasn't gonna go formin' no lynching party over it, but it bothered me some thinkin' two of my friends might be that way.
I supposed I might get used to it given time. I'd seen worse things. If it were anyone but Chris and Vin it probably wouldn't matter much to me one way or another. But I guess I had my image of the two of them and no one likes havin' their views turned upside down.
The problem was that none of us had time. We were gonna have to stand and be counted right here and now. We were gonna have to decide what we could live with and how far we were willing to go before we really knew the answer.
If we stood by our friends, we were guilty by association. There weren't many people who could see beyond the shadow of doubt. Not that there was much doubt in most people's minds to begin with. Sometimes human nature just plain disgusted me.
If we abandoned Chris and Vin to their fate, could I still call myself a man and look in a mirror without flinching? I didn't have any answers and I suspect none of the others did either. Especially not Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner.
"As much as I enjoy the company of you gentlemen, we cannot stay in this jail all night. Much as the good people of this town might wish otherwise." Trust Ezra to point that out.
"They don't want us in jail, Ezra. They want us gone."
"Those that don't want us tarred and feathered or tied to a whippin' post."
"You two are so goddamned cheerful I can't hardly stand it." That was Buck. He looked near ready to burst with frustration. Couldn't blame him. If I wasn't so damn tired, I'd feel that way myself.
"Well geez, Buck. You expect them to be happy with the way things are? I wouldn't want the whole town knowing something like that about me."
"Not that any of it's true, of course." JD added. Too little too late. But like I'd already said, truth was no longer the issue. Sometimes lies become more true than the actual truth ever was.
"Of course not, JD." Chris's voice was dry. He sounded calm and collected, but then he usually does. I wish I knew what he was thinking. But then, maybe I didn't. Doubt you could sometimes learn to live with. Certain kinds of knowledge you couldn't do that.
"I'm sorry, Chris. Vin. I didn't mean..."
"Don't worry about it, JD. I expect we'll hear a whole lot worse before this is all over with." Vin spoke with a certainty I knew we all felt and wished we didn't.
"Well, there's not much we can do beyond trying to keep a lid on trouble for now. Me and Vin will keep as low a profile as we can without making it seem like we're in hiding. The rest of you stick close together. Some people aren't too choosy about their targets when they have their blood up." Chris was still our unofficial leader, despite everything. Some men are just born to command whether they like it or not. I don't think Chris Larabee always liked it, but he did what was necessary.
Target. Seemed I'd spent most of my life being a target for hate and violence. Because of the color of my skin and now because of the friends I chose. There was no escaping it. Hell, I could paint myself purple and disavow Chris and Vin til I turned blue, but there would still be people who saw me as nothin' more than an ex slave with the wrong kinds of friends. Chris was right. Walking alone wouldn't be a good idea for a while. Til we got a better idea of where things stood.
"I believe the Indians have a name for this?" Ezra murmured when he opened the door to the jailhouse, revealing the town and its occupants.
"Yeah. The gauntlet. Most people don't survive it." With those words, Vin shouldered past all of us and walked out. Ezra was next, with Josiah at his side. Chris stalked out like an angry panther, with Buck following close behind. Then it was my turn, along with JD.
I didn't know where the others had in mind, but I knew where I was heading. My clinic. The one place life made sense. The one place I could sometimes bring order to chaos. I had a need for all of that right now. I just hoped I could get there in one piece. By the looks on some of the faces, that prospect was gettin' dimmer by the second.
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