"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."
"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, from their archives. " The editor of the Messenger had been a friend of his son, Steven. "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.