Summary: A WHN for A Hot Day for a Hanging; or, the aftermath of an attempted lynching. (Because while the writers seemed to like ending episodes in mid-scene, I needed more closure here — a few extra scenes, and maybe even the Cartwrights riding off into the sunset.)
Word Count: 8060
I don’t remember goin’ back to the jail from the hangin’ tree. I get snippets—a woman screamin’ and cryin’, Pa kneelin’ next to somebody, the sheriff sayin’ somethin’ to Pa and then somethin’ to me. Don’t know what. I know I thumped him like I understood, like things was all worked out between us, but I never heard a word. All I knew was that Pa had just bought me a few more hours, and I wanted somethin’ solid at my back before one o’ them loco townsfolk changed his mind again. All I remember is holdin’ onto that noose and prayin’ for my knees to stop shakin’, and then watchin’ Pa come back into the jail with the sheriff.
Pa says it was about twenty minutes, but I couldn’t tell ya.
I was sittin’ in a corner of the cell when they walked in, rather than on the cot—better protection if somebody decided ta come at me. My belly was doin’ flips like one o’ them circus acrobats. Pa saw me, and nodded, and I knew he understood.
“Aw, now, I don’t know if that’s—”
“Sheriff,” my pa cut Stedman off. “I bought twenty-four hours out there, not a jail release. I—”
“Mr. Cartwright, I don’t think—”
“Sheriff Stedman!” Pa sure can bark when he wants somebody’s attention, and that Stedman fella came to attention right quick. “It may be that your people have changed their minds, but there’s no proof of that. Until every single one of them walks into this jail and says otherwise, we’ll work under the assumption that they refrained from hanging my son because of the money I offered and for no other reason! I don’t intend to risk his life twice in one night by taking a single word of that bargain for granted.” He looked around, and there was apology on his face. “I’m sorry, son. I—”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere, Pa.”
He hesitated for a minute, lookin’ me up and down like he was tryin’ to see from way over there if I was hurt or needed him, then he looked back to the sheriff. “You’ll have the telegraph operator ready at dawn?”
“Before.” Stedman crossed to his desk and sank into the chair, lookin’ like the entire world was sittin’ on his shoulders. “We’ll get that request out as soon as the operator in Scottsberg arrives, get the whole thing cleared up and have you out of here before breakfast.” His lips twitched like he wanted to smile but didn’t dare. “Unless you want breakfast before you go.”
Not surprisingly, Pa wasn’t in a jokin’ mood. “We won’t.” That settled, he turned his back on Stedman and stalked toward the jail cell. He came right through the doorway and crouched down beside me. I could see up close the cut on his forehead where somebody had bashed him with that rifle on their way through to lynch me. “Hoss? How are you, boy?”
“I’m okay, Pa.”
I guess the lie, on top of everything else from that awful stinkin’ day, was just too much for my poor belly, ’cause the next thing I knew I was throwin’ up all over the floor.
They’d had that rope around my neck three times. Three. And all I’d been able to think about there at the end was my pa, layin’ in that corner all still and bloody. If he’d been hurt bad tryin’ to save me, and then they’d hanged me anyway …
You’re gonna get it, big man!*
I could still hear her. I’d been hearin’ her since she’d walked out the door …
“Hoss?” Pa’s hand was on my back, the other on my forehead. He was talkin’, kinda low and steady, but for a long while I didn’t hear any of it. Finally, though, I was finished, and I sat back, and he just went on talkin’, movin’ his hand up and down my back. “It’s alright, son, you’re safe now. It’s going to be alright.”
That made me feel even worse. What kind of man was I, anyhow? That’s right. I was scared, and I still wanted my Pa. Pa would be mad if he knew what I was thinkin’—he’s always remindin’ us that even though we’re men now, we’re young men still and we got a lot of livin’ ta get under our belts—but right now that didn’t help me none.
They’re going to come in here and drag you out, and they’re going to put a rope around your neck for killing my Ed!
Except, I hadn’t killed nobody …
Well, I don’t care if you’re sure or not!
None of them cared. Well … that wasn’t true. Mr. Fillmore had sent for Pa. A whole town full of folk, and only one of them had thought anything about throwin’ me in jail and holdin’ me there without no help, and hangin’ me without bein’ sure …
I tried to shake Pa off, but he wasn’t havin’ it.
I guess Pa knows me pretty well by now.
“Sit up slow, son.” He reached behind him, and when he came back around he had a canteen. My canteen. I glanced up and saw Stedman standin’ there, but Pa pulled my eyes back to him. “Take a drink, wash out. You’re alright.” I did, and felt better.
“I’m sorry, Pa.”
Pa lifted an eyebrow. “For what, specifically?”
Nothin’ came. Too much came. That whole day flashed by me. Gettin’ arrested in the middle of nowhere and thrown in jail for somethin’ I didn’t do. Knowin’ I was alone, and that no one had even sent any telegraph to check my story. Hearin’ that witness identify me as a murderer. Watchin’ that whole line file past, tellin’ me how I deserved to die and I was gonna. How I was gonna hang. The disappointment—the downright anger—that they weren’t gonna get to watch it happen.
A whole town …
Watchin’ my pa come through that door, by some miracle I still don’t understand, and then seein’ him clubbed down only minutes later.
Seein’ that lynch mob come at me and knowin’ the sheriff had let them.
I looked down. I was sorry any of it had ever happened.
“If you’d fought them, they would have shot you.”
“But Pa …”
“No buts. Not right now.” He gripped my hand suddenly, pulling it down. “Leave it alone, son.” For a minute I wondered what he was talkin’ about, and then I felt it. The skin on my neck hurt. Burned. Rope burn, I guess, from fightin’ off that noose there at the very end. I’d been rubbin’ at it, prob’ly since I’d come back inside, and hadn’t even realized. “Come on.” Pa pulled at my arm, draggin’ me up onto the cot. I followed him—it was okay not to have the wall at my back, long as he was here.
I really was just plumb ridiculous, wasn’t I?
You’re gonna get it, big man!
I wished I didn’t have to listen to her no more, but there didn’t seem to be nothin’ I could do about that.
“Hoss.” Pa shook my shoulder, and I realized I wasn’t payin’ attention.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened today?”
I would be a relief to get it off my chest, so I did.
Some of it, anyhow.
He’s too hard on himself.
My son—my cheerful, gentle bear of a son—was arrested without sufficient cause, jailed in a town full of hostile strangers, and lynched … and he is angry and embarrassed at the depth of his fear.
Though he won’t say it, he is still afraid.
Hoss is twenty-six years old—so young, and without any experience to really understand what effect that kind of concentrated hate can have on a man. Oh, he’s been exposed to some lousy specimens of humanity, all of my boys have … but he has never been the focus of such systematic vitriol from otherwise normal, decent people. I admit, I’d hoped (foolishly) that my sons might never have to learn that lesson.
In any case, when did I ever teach them that fear itself was wrong?
From what I’d heard, the little I’d managed to gather from Hoss and Stedman and a few of the other town worthies—a term I use lightly here—my son’s fear was more than justified. It amazes and terrifies me what discomfort and fear and desperation can do … how quickly people—especially all grouped together like that—can truly ‘stop bein’ people for a while’, as Stedman said.
I knew, too, they’d left things out—all of them. Hoss is a truthful man, and he doesn’t lie well. Not that he was telling me any falsehoods, but there were things troubling him that he wouldn’t say. As for the rest … when no one will look you in the eye, you get the idea that they’ve got something to hide.
Unfortunately, I’d have to leave that for now. We had enough to be getting on with—I had telegraphs to write, money to distribute, and what’s more, I didn’t intend to assume that none of that mob out there would change their minds overnight. Sheriff Stedman was right about one thing—this place was a tinderbox. So, I had no time to pry. Not right then, anyway. But Hoss would tell me the whole story, sooner or later. I’d see to it.
I left the cell and approached Stedman’s desk. “Where is my son’s gun?”
Stedman rose without a word and crossed to a locked cabinet on the opposite wall. He opened it, withdrew Hoss’s gun, and handed it over to me. I checked the ammunition and started back across to the cell. Turning from the relocked cabinet, Stedman protested.
“Now wait a minute, Mr. Cartwright. I know your son don’t rightly belong in there, but I still can’t have a prisoner with a loaded—”
“A lynch mob took my son today without a shot fired in his defense,” I snapped, stepping through the barred doorway and holding the gun out to Hoss. “I won’t have him sitting in here wondering what will change next, and how he’ll protect himself then.”
Hoss hesitated, glancing warily between me and the sheriff. Stedman, though, only sighed and returned to his desk, as I’d known he would. Receiving no protest, Hoss took the gun from me, settling it across his knees. Some of the tension in my son’s body relaxed.
Tom Stedman was a broken man. I didn’t know whether it was a result of his actions earlier this evening—the decision to step aside from a mob, to abdicate his role as protector of a prisoner in his jail, was the kind from which some men never really recover—or if it had been comin’ on for a while, or if he’d already been there. All I knew was that the sheriff of Dutchman Flats had no fight left in him. He knew he’d been in the wrong—his whole town had been in the wrong. He’d support my attempts to straighten things out, but I would have to take the lead.
To be honest, I preferred things that way. Tension still bubbled beneath the uneasy calm that had settled since Jesse Fillmore’s shooting, and I had no desire to leave either my son or myself in the hands of anyone who claimed residency in the place.
I didn’t trust myself to leave anyone standing if anything else went wrong.
“This stays unlocked,” I said, swinging the barred door closed behind me. Stedman nodded without turning. I looked back around. “Hoss, get some sleep if you can.”
He nodded, but I knew he wouldn’t. I didn’t press him, I probably wouldn’t have either. Instead I sat on the other side of Stedman’s desk, pulled paper and pen toward me, and began to write.
The heat broke that night—not completely, but the violent storm that rolled through Dutchman Flats left behind an atmosphere that was uncomfortable rather than brutal. I had hoped for a quick exit, before noon perhaps—despite Stedman’s talk of a pre-breakfast departure, there was no way to get the documents I’d requested any sooner—but it was not to be. Stedman took the telegraphs to the operator himself, some time before sunrise. I was dozing in a chair against the wall of the jail when he stepped back in. Behind him, the ashy orange glow of morning lit the sky.
“Mr. Cartwright …”
His reluctance gave me warning, and in the cell Hoss straightened. “Sheriff?”
“The telegraph to Virginia City got off alright, but the line to Scottsberg is down.”
My gut clenched. Of course it couldn’t be so easy. “What do you mean it’s down?” I demanded. “It worked fine when Fillmore telegraphed yesterday.”
“Yeah, it did.” Stedman nodded, his voice never straying from the same even, reasonable tone with which he had approached the whole affair. “But that storm last night likely did a lot more damage than one telegraph line.” He crossed to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. “Look, assuming your other sons get that telegraph in good time, they should be here by midday. Those documents alone will prove—”
“Prove what, Sheriff?” I snapped. I glanced toward Hoss, who looked vaguely ill at the news. “It may be enough to convince this town that we are who we say we are, but that’s only half of it—and the lesser part. My name didn’t make any difference to you last night, did it? No, you only told me that my son was suspected of murder, and accused me of being a part of his gang! What makes you think proving our names will mean anything this morning, to anyone else here?” I shook my head. “No, I intend to prove to these people beyond any doubt that my son had that money legally, for a valid purpose. I intend to put an end to this, and that means a statement from the land office in Scottsberg!”
Stedman sighed, sinking into his chair. “Well, what about your bank? If you telegraph them, will they verify that they gave the money to your son?”
I nearly growled aloud. “They will verify that they gave the money to my oldest, Adam. He was the one who withdrew the funds.”
The laconic reply rubbed at me, as did everything else about the man, and it was all I could do not to snarl something that I didn’t want my son hearing me say. Taking a long, deep breath, I made a circuit of the jail, stopping before the cell to give Hoss an encouraging smile. From the look on his face, I suspect it did no good. I thumped at the bars gently for a few minutes, sifting through options in my mind. Finally, I nodded and moved away from the cell, returning to the seat in which I had kept vigil all the long night.
“Here’s what we’re going to do.”
The telegraph still burned a hole in my pocket, even as Joe and I finally rode into the little town of Dutchman Flats.
REQUIRE IDENTIFICATION DOCUMENTATION BEN AND ERIC CARTWRIGHT. STOP.
DUTCHMAN FLATS SHERIFFS OFFICE. STOP.
COME IMMEDIATELY. STOP.
It had taken Joe more than a few minutes to locate the town on the map in the telegraph office while I detailed a brief response to the operator—we were leaving right away, and assuming no difficulties arose we would be there just after noon. It was a small place, even by area standards, just off of the road between Virginia City and Scottsberg.
That made sense, even if nothing else did.
Dutchman Flats was quiet. More than quiet. It would have seemed almost dead, if not for the people watching from doors and windows and corners as we trotted along the main street and pulled up in front of the sheriff’s office. They just watched, though. No one spoke, or moved—either toward us or back toward their own business. Joe scrunched his face into an uneasy grimace as we swung down and looped our reins over the rail.
“What’s going on here?” he hissed. I only shrugged, flipping the saddlebags with the requested paperwork over my shoulder. It was a rhetorical question, anyway—we were both working with the same information, which was next thing to nothing.
“Let’s go find out.”
Joe followed me onto the porch, but he kept sneaking glances over his shoulder and I couldn’t blame him. I felt a little like we had targets painted on us, myself. The door swung open before we reached it, and a man about Pa’s age with a gray mustache and a badge motioned us in. I cast a glance of my own behind us before entering, and noticed something I hadn’t before—a rope lying coiled beneath the big tree in the center of town. I shared a quick look with Little Joe, who had apparently seen the same, before ducking inside. As always, I made sure nothing showed in my expression—you’re two steps ahead if no one can tell what you’re thinking—but my little brother’s face did the talking for both of us.
Something bad was going on here, and our father and brother were in the middle of it.
“Adam. Joseph.” Pa met us at the door. “You brought the papers?”
“Yessir.” I unslung the saddlebags. Pa snatched them away and crossed to the desk. Joe and I exchanged another glance, then I moved cautiously after him. “Pa, what’s going on?”
He grunted, leafing through the stack. I watched Pa search for … whatever it was he wanted, and wondered again just what was happening. I hadn’t been exactly certain what sort of ‘identification documentation’ he was after, so I’d brought along several different types of contracts and other documents bearing Pa’s and Hoss’s names and signatures. Pa was agitated, and it showed—dark circles beneath his eyes, exhausted set to his shoulders, tight-reined anger in his jerky movements. I hadn’t yet seen Hoss, but about then Joe managed to locate him.
“Hoss!” I turned, following Joe’s path to the cell. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. Joe gripped the bars, and I had to give him credit—our little brother made a solid attempt to keep things light. “Hey, brother!” He even forced a grin, which for Joe in this type of situation was a real accomplishment. “You been tearin’ up the range out here? Smashin’ up saloons? What they got you in for?”
Then I looked at our middle brother—really looked at him—and saw pretty fast that whatever efforts Joe made were going to be in vain.
Hoss is so good-natured he’s downright cheery most of the time, even when things start to get a little rough. A lot of people who don’t know him see this and make the mistake of thinking they’ve found an easy target. The truth, of course, is that this good-natured brother of mine is just so big and strong, not to mention a good shot and a lot smarter than people give him credit for, that there’s just no need for him to get all worked up about most things. When he does feel threatened, though—really threatened—he gets this way about him. Deep frown, solid jaw, dark eyes. Corded muscles. It’s … well, frankly it’s frightening, coming from someone of his size, and I think that’s what he intends. I don’t mean consciously, but there’s just something inside my brother trying to scare trouble away before it gets too close.
It was there now, muted by fatigue and … something else I couldn’t place, not right off—but I could definitely see whispers of it in the way he sat on that cot against the back wall of the cell, clutching his pistol across his knees.
Wait a minute. He had his pistol, in the cell.
What was going on here?
“Settin’ a fire on rangeland,” Hoss grumbled, and for a minute I thought that somehow I was wrong and he was joking with Little Joe. A second glance told me he wasn’t.
Setting a fire on rangeland. Right.
So. Probably trumped up charges. The mystery deepened.
Joe looked from me, to Pa, and back to Hoss. I could see the tight leash on his temper, never too sturdy to begin with, unraveling. “You, uh … you burn somethin’ down?”
“Then why are you in here?” Joe spun from the cell and stalked toward the sheriff, who had not yet spoken. In fact, we still hadn’t even been introduced. “Why is he in there?” he demanded. The sheriff just looked at him, without comment or even expression, and I was about to head Joe off when Pa crammed a few documents into his vest, stuffed the rest back into the bags, and turned on us.
“Adam, you come with me. Joseph, stay close to your brother.” He stalked toward the door, straightening his gun belt with sharp tugs. I traded another confused glance with Joe, then nodded toward Hoss and scurried after our pa. “Stedman,” Pa snapped as he passed the sheriff, and the man fell in line as neat as you please.
As we crossed to the saloon, I had an up-close view of that rope beneath the tree. It was definitely a hanging rope, looped into a noose at one end. I swallowed back the sudden bile, praying it had been there for a week, or a month. Praying it had nothing to do with my middle brother, huddled back there in that jail cell. Buck and two unfamiliar horses (not Chubby, the big horse was nowhere in evidence) stood fully tacked at the saloon rail, and I patted the buckskin absently as we passed. Pa stalked through the saloon doors, slapped the papers down on the nearest table, and bellowed, “Gather round, people!”
A group of men left the tables and bar to cluster around Pa. I still wasn’t sure what was happening or what Pa wanted from me, so for the moment I hung back near the doorway, crossed my arms, and held up the wall. I couldn’t quite see what was going on, but there was a lot of murmuring and discussion. One of them, a rail-thin man with grey hair, produced another paper, which Pa snatched from him and added to the mix. After a long moment, Pa’s voice rose over the others. “Is that it, then? You’re reasonably satisfied we are who we say we are?”
The muttering was quieter this time, and the group began to break up. None of them, I noticed, would meet Pa’s eyes, and no one seemed particularly interested in looking at me either. The way cleared, I drifted closer for a look at the other paper. It was just a blank sheet, with both Pa’s and Hoss’s signatures scrawled across it. Something they’d signed for these people, in preparation for the arrival of these documents? I didn’t get a chance to ask. Pa gathered up all the paperwork, made an unconvincing attempt to order the pile, and thrust it toward me.
“We’re headed for Scottsberg, should be back by early evening.”
I followed him back outside. The thin man and another, short and mostly bald, were already mounted, waiting. Both looked away as we approached. They seemed chagrined … almost ashamed.
I tried again. “Pa, what’s—”
“Don’t leave your brother alone here.” Pa swung onto Buck and snapped a frown toward Sheriff Stedman, who had ducked out with us. “No exceptions.”
Those were fighting words, and I expected Stedman to finally come alive. He didn’t. The sheriff chewed at his lip for a minute, then nodded to Pa, turned, and disappeared back into the saloon.
Had this entire town eaten locoweed?
“Adam.” Pa wheeled Buck around, and for the first time since Joe and I had arrived he actually looked at me. “I’m sorry, son. There’s no time, we have to be in Scottsberg before the land office closes. Hoss can fill you in.” He looked toward the papers in my hands. “Thank you.”
All right, then. I wasn’t going to get my answers, not here, and it was better I didn’t try. I pushed down the irritation that always came with being left in the dark—my pa was who he was, and asking again wasn’t going to change that—and offered a slight grin. “Of course, Pa. I’ll head back over to the jail.”
“Good boy.” Pa kicked at Buck, and the three of them rode out. I shook my head, and went to straighten out the pile of documents. We would all still be boys to Pa until the day he died, whether we were thirty-five or seventy-five.
I hoped it would be closer to seventy-five.
A few of the men from the saloon had drifted out onto the boardwalk and the street, watching the three riders until they disappeared. One of them glanced at me.
“You another one o’ that Cartwright’s sons?”
“I am,” I agreed pleasantly.
He shuffled his feet and looked away. “Well … we sure are sorry about the lynchin’ an’ all. It was all just a big mix-up, don’t ya know.”
“You’re sorry about the lynching.” I eyed the men around me. There went my hope (long shot that it was) that the noose was just a part of the town décor. Another spoke, his tone defensive.
“Your brother’s a right big man! How was we ta know he weren’t the one, especially after Shukie gone and said he was?”
They’d lynched Hoss. They’d lynched my younger brother because he was big and because someone who’d obviously seen just enough to be dangerous had misidentified him as … as what?
“He wasn’t the one who what?”
It was difficult to discuss the thing without any basic facts.
“Who robbed the bank and shot Ed Wilson!”
Robbed their bank? Murdered a man?
This was Hoss we were talking about, right?
“He had twenty-five thousand in gold in them saddlebags!” another added. “What was we supposed to think?”
Well, that was just ridiculous. It was no easy matter to carry twenty-five thousand dollars worth of gold in a couple of saddlebags. Anyway, I was pretty sure there was actually twelve thousand in bills, as I’d been the one to withdraw it in Virginia City.
“So, he must be the one because he had money and is a big man.” They caught my sarcasm, at least. A couple of them looked away, a few seemed angry. That was alright, though, because I was too. I looked them over and then motioned to one, a fairly big man with dark hair and a soiled pink (rose? salmon?) undershirt. “What about him?”
He pushed to the fore. “What about me?”
I ignored him, keeping my focus on the others. “He’s a big man. Anybody check to see if he’s got your money?”
They stared as if I’d just committed sacrilege. “Well, no!” one of them finally stuttered. “Course not!”
“Why not? ‘Big’ was your criteria, right?”
The big man’s face flushed. “Now, look here …”
“Ned’s our neighbor!” One of the other men pushed forward. “He’s our friend! We know about him, we know his wife and kids! He’d never do something like that to us!”
“You know about him.” I bit the words off. The original arrest was probably an honest mistake, and (somewhat) understandable. You couldn’t blame the sheriff for seeing a man with money who fit the general description and wanting to know more. But the rest, whatever had happened afterward to get them all riled to the point of rushing the jail and attempting to hang my brother … “Well, gentlemen, I know about Hoss. Do you want to hear?” They exchanged uneasy glances, but I just plowed ahead. “He was a baby in my arms when our ma was killed by an Indian arrow right there in front of us. He loves animals, and they love him. He’ll go out of his way to help anyone in need, whether they deserve it or not. He’s as honest as he is big, and he can’t bruise a man without feeling guilty unless it was a good, honest brawl that brought it on.” I clenched my jaw. “He’s the last person in the world who would take a man’s life and leave your town destitute just for a few dollars that don’t belong to him.” They were gaping by now, and I suspected I was beginning to sound like a madman myself. Maybe it was something in the air here… I drew in a breath, pinched the bridge of my nose, and shook my head. “Everybody’s somebody, gentlemen. Probably better to find out who before doing something permanent like lynching.”
They didn’t stop me when I stepped away—they were probably as ready to be done with me as I was with them. I stopped halfway across the road for a stretch and another long breath. Better to calm myself down now before I got back to the sheriff’s office and asked Hoss for the whole story. As I removed my hat and wiped the sweat from my forehead, a blonde woman in a black dress stepped up onto the sheriff’s porch and entered the jail.
I watched Pa leave with Adam and the sheriff, and it was all I could do not to run after them and demand some answers. A look back into the cell, though, reminded me why we were here, and I leaned my forehead into the bars as the outer door banged shut, trying to catch my brother’s eye.
“Hoss? What happened?”
For a minute Hoss didn’t move—and when he did look up, there was somethin’ tired and afraid in his eyes that didn’t look like my big brother at all.
I didn’t like it.
“I turned my back when I saw his badge, is what happened.”
What? “What does that mean?”
Hoss dragged sigh from his toes and leaned back. “Joe … I ain’t never knowed anythin’ like what went on here yesterday. It was all just …” He stopped, then shook his head and closed his eyes. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
There was a warning in his voice, that stop pushin’, little brother tone I’d heard so many times since before I could remember. I generally ignored it, Hoss being who he was and more likely to just go along in the end than actually pound me into the dust like he could (maybe even should). I was getting the feeling, though, that maybe this time he really meant it … so I shut my mouth and laid off for a while, even though curiosity was about eatin’ me alive. For a few minutes we were both still, and it was the most awkward few minutes I ever remember spending with Hoss. We’ve just never been naturally quiet together—big brother and I spend more time cookin’ up trouble than ponderin’ the facts of life like ol’ Adam. I wondered where he and Pa had got off to, and what was happening out there. There were windows, but the curtains were drawn and I couldn’t see anything. I stretched my patience as long as I could (Adam is wrong, I can sit still for longer than three minutes—I’m pretty sure I lasted at least five), but I finally had to break the silence. “Do you need anything?”
Hoss relaxed. “Could use some water.”
I found the water bucket and brought a dripping dipperful back to the cell. Hoss didn’t move, and for a minute I wondered whether he was expecting me to throw it over to him and just how that was supposed to work. He grinned faintly.
“Open?” My voice cracked on the surprise. I tugged at the door, and it swung right out. Gaping, I entered and handed the dipper to my brother. “That’s … a first.”
Hoss snorted, drank, and tossed the dipper aside. “Whole stinkin’ mess has been a first.” It clattered off the brick wall and rolled to a stop in the middle of the floor, rocking gently a couple of times and leaving a wet mark that evaporated almost immediately. “Sheriff knows now I don’t belong in here—don’t know that he ever really thought I did—but Pa made a deal with the townsfolk ta give me another day in jail for him ta prove we was who we said, and that I didn’t take none o’ their stinkin’ money. Pa didn’t want ta take any chances, not with these crazy folk, so we’re followin’ that ta the letter.” He jiggled the gun on his knee. “With a couple of … precautions.”
I crept closer. “What do ya mean, Pa got you another day in jail? Why didn’t he just—”
“Was either that or this.”
Hoss motioned roughly to the side of his neck, and I caught my breath. A bright red burn splashed across his skin, and I remembered the rope out under the tree. My gut twisted like a wrung-out dishtowel. “They tried ta hang you? For what?”
Sometimes, I wonder if my voice will ever settle out completely.
Right now, it didn’t really seem to matter so much.
“I told you. For takin’ their money.”
“Joe.” His voice was solid again, and he looked away. “I told ya, I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Alright, he’d said that. I did want to … but I also had to make myself remember that this wasn’t about me. “Sorry.”
His eyes flickered up. “You don’t gotta be.”
That’s my brother Hoss, always lookin’ after me. Guess this time it was my turn. If he didn’t want to talk, that would just have to be okay. I plopped down on the cot and leaned back beside him, shoulder to shoulder. I felt Hoss take another deep breath, and then he nudged me—just a little. I dug back, and when I glanced over he was wearin’ a little bit of a smile.
This time the silence wasn’t awkward, and we were both on the edge of nodding off (I can sleep anywhere, jail cells included, and Hoss was just plain worn out) when the outer door opened. I was expecting Pa or Adam back, maybe the sheriff, but it was some blonde gal in a black dress. Hoss stiffened right up, and when I glanced over, he was lookin’ dangerous again.
What was this, then?
I stood and drifted forward, hand on my pistol even though I didn’t see how this woman could be any kind of a danger. Hoss was actin’ strange, though, and since I didn’t know the lay of the land it was probably better to just be prepared. The lady didn’t really even seem to know where she was—she was weaving around all over the place, bracing against the walls and the furniture, talking under her breath. She looked right through us a couple of times, and finally Hoss moved up next to me.
“Mrs. Wilson, ma’am? Are you … alright?”
The change was quick, and scary. Her eyes focused, and Mrs. Wilson (Hoss had said Mrs. Wilson, I didn’t know her from … Adam) started toward us. “You!” She pointed, and Hoss edged back. “You think you got away with it, don’t you?” She rushed the bars, and I darted forward to slam the door. Hopefully, she wouldn’t notice it was unlocked. Hoss had turned his back on her. “You’re gonna hang, big man!” Her voice was hoarse, like she’d been shouting for a long time. I inched toward my brother for protection—mine or his, I wasn’t sure. Maybe both. This woman was … she surely couldn’t be in her right mind. Hoss took a long breath through flared nostrils. “You fooled everyone else, but not me! Shukie said it was you, and you’re gonna hang!”
Had this been goin’ on yesterday too? No wonder my big brother was so edgy …
The door banged open again, and another woman hurried in. “MaryAnn!”
“They’re gonna stretch you up!”
“MaryAnn!” The other woman, middle-aged and plump with a tight black bun, took Mrs. Wilson’s shoulders and tried to pull her away. “MaryAnn, you come on back. You ain’t supposed to be—”
“It’s true! You’re gonna—”
Suddenly, Adam was there. “Enough.” I hadn’t even seen our older brother come in. He lifted Mrs. Wilson bodily away from the cell, and when she struck at him he wrapped an arm tight around her, pinning her flailing limbs to her sides.
“Don’t hurt her!” the older woman protested, and Adam gave her that impatient look of his—the one that makes you feel like maybe you left half your brain back in bed this morning.
“I’m not going to hurt her.” Adam glanced toward us, eyes settling briefly on Hoss’s back. “She can’t stay here, though. My brother doesn’t have to listen to this.” Mrs. Wilson twisted in Adam’s grip, whispering to herself. The other woman—nurse? caretaker? mother?—hurried to smooth back the blonde hair.
“MaryAnn? You settle down now. That’s right, you just come on back with me and get some more rest, that’s a good girl.” She looked up at Adam. “I’m sorry ta ask it, but could you help me get her back to my place? I’m two doors down, in the back of the mercantile. She … we’ve been givin’ her laudanum since last night, and I didn’t think she’d even be awake yet, much less up and walkin’.” She looked around to include me and Hoss in her explanation. “I don’t know how much you’ve been told, but it was her husband was killed in the bank robbery, and what with all the not knowin’ for so long, and then shootin’ her pa last night durin’ the …” She trailed off, her eyes drawing back to Hoss.
“The lynching,” Adam supplied flatly.
They’d lynched Hoss, of all people. It still seemed like the punch line to a bad joke. And … this Mrs. Wilson had shot her own pa at the same time? I glanced from the lady to Hoss, then over to Adam, who seemed as confused as I was (in his own way).
“Yes, well.” The woman bit her lip. Adam turned Mrs. Wilson toward the door.
“Let’s go, then.”
The black-haired woman made it almost outside, but then turned suddenly and hurried back. “Sir, please.” She gripped the cell bars, and her dark eyes locked onto Hoss’s back. “I know you didn’t rob our bank, I know you don’t deserve the way she spoke ta you or any of the rest … but please. Ed was all she had, they’ve got no children or kin other than her pa, and most of her world died with him in the bank that day.” Hoss turned half around, and I could tell by the tilt of his head that he was listening. “There were just no clues, no hope of findin’ the money or the men who did this. The heat’s been terrible, the crops been dyin’, everyone’s afraid of starvin’. She just … she needed ta know so bad that when Tom brought you in, I think somethin’ inside of her just …” She wrung her hands. “I don’t think she’ll ever be convinced ya didn’t do it.”
“That’s no excuse!” I snapped, but Hoss grabbed my arm before I could continue. He shook his head, then ambled over to the bars.
“No, it ain’t.” My big brother pulled in a breath. “It ain’t an excuse … but it’s a reason.” Hoss wrapped his own hands around the bars. “And she’s got a better one than most, I reckon.” He looked down. “I ain’t sayin’ I’m happy about it, but I guess I understand.”
My brother Hoss. The most stubbornly forgiving man I ever met.
I don’t see how he could do it.
Her eyes glistened. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I’m… I’m so sorry.”
Hoss offered her a smile that was more of a grimace, and tipped his hat. “Ma’am.”
She eyed him for another long moment, then swept out after Adam and Mrs. Wilson. I turned on him.
“It’s just that easy, is it? After everything? I don’t see how—”
“No, it ain’t that easy!” Hoss paced back to the cot and flung himself down. It held, sturdy thing that it was. “But I ain’t aimin’ ta let her make any more o’ my life miserable than what she’s already done, and I reckon …” He shook his head, staring at nothing. “I reckon she really didn’t know what she was doin’, there at the end.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Hoss …”
He twisted a grin up at me. “Little brother, I know you’re mad ‘bout what happened, and I appreciate that. But, she ain’t the only deservin’ soul in town. Spread yourself around some.” Hoss snorted softly, and the smile slid off of his face. “No, it ain’t that easy, and it ain’t even that quick.” He glanced up, almost as if he was daring me to argue. I bit it all back. It wasn’t … it wasn’t the way to help my brother. “But I’m gonna do it, cause I ain’t taking this place with me when we go.”
Could be he understood things better than I did. Hoss was that way, sometimes.
I understood some things too, though, and Hoss was one of them. This big brother of mine thought best out loud—that lost look in his eyes wasn’t going ta go away until he did some talking. I eased onto the edge of the cot, picking at a hole in the canvas. “Hoss, what did happen?” He clenched his jaw, and I nudged at him with my knee. “Come on, brother. Lemme have it.”
“Let you have it?” Hoss lifted an eyebrow, then laughed softly—a real laugh, if not much of one—and slumped back against the wall. “Little Joe, I don’t think you rightly know what you’re askin’.”
“Anything you can dish out, I can take.”
His eyes lit a little, somewhere deep down. “Anything I can dish out?” I nodded, and he chuckled outright. “You think you’re tough guy, huh little brother?”
“I know I’m a tough guy.” I sprawled back with a studied carelessness that I knew Hoss wouldn’t be able to resist crushing like a bug, and laced my fingers behind my head. “I’m a Cartwright, ain’t I?”
Hoss snorted, and knocked me off the side of the cot, and started talking.
They musta made darn good time ta Scottsberg and back, ’cause there was still a couple hours of daylight left when Pa and the others rode back into Dutchman Flats. ‘Course, I guess that don’t surprise me none, not with Pa in the mood he was in. Joe and Adam and me was all just kinda sprawled around the jail cell by that point, not sayin’ much. Didn’t seem a whole lot more ta say, really—wasn’t much goin’ on by then, and with the sheriff at his desk within easy earshot nobody felt much like talkin’ anyhow. Adam had made hisself comfortable on the floor, leanin’ back into a corner with his hat pulled down over his eyes, but Joe was still glued ta my elbow like he’d been ever since I told him what all had happened here yesterday, lookin’ fit ta spit tacks like only Joe can.
Made me want ta laugh, just a little—for all his small size, my little brother can be somethin’ fierce. Sheriff Stedman had taken one look at Joe when he’d come back in, turned, and walked off ta his chair without a word.
Also made me feel a whole lot better. Havin’ my brothers at my back always makes all the difference. Not like yesterday …
Nope. Wasn’t thinkin’ about yesterday no more. Not right now, anyway.
We heard the horses clatter up, and the sheriff went out ta meet them. A couple minutes later Pa came through the door alone.
“Adam, Joseph, get the horses ready. Hoss …” Pa caught my eyes, and I saw relief and satisfaction in his. “Time to go home, boy.”
Even though I’d known everything was gonna work out, those words were still mighty good ta hear. Joe balked, clearly unhappy about leaving his self-appointed spot at my side, but I nudged him out after Adam before Pa could take him ta task. “Go on, now. Sooner we get them horses, sooner we can get gone from here.”
Even Joe couldn’t argue with that. He thumped my arm and scurried out the door, brushing past Stedman as the man stepped back inside. The sheriff watched him go, then shook his head and pulled the door shut. When he turned and saw me there with Pa, outside that jail cell at long last, he sorta froze where he stood, and for a minute we just looked at each other, him and me. There was a lot between us, even if we never saw each other again. Stedman was gonna have to live with what he had done here—jailin’ an innocent man, draggin’ his feet about gettin’ the truth, steppin’ aside for a lynchin’ party even knowin’ I might not be (probably wasn’t) guilty. For myself, here was somebody else ta forgive, and I didn’t think this one was gonna be as easy as Mrs. Wilson.
Well … I would work on that later, I guessed. I meant it when I told Joe I wasn’t gonna have this whole thing hangin’ over me forever.
Didn’t seem like he had anything ta say, and it was time ta get outa here. I started for the door and Pa made ta follow, but the sheriff stopped him. “It’s gettin’ on ta dark soon. You sure you want to head out now?”
It was a plumb ridiculous question and even he knew it.
“Yeah, I think we’ll go.” Pa’s voice still had that same bite it had carried since last night, and he pulled his eyebrows down into that frown I knew (from personal experience) could make your knees just shake. “Unless you think we’ll be arrested for starting a campfire on range land.”
The corners of Stedman’s mouth twitched, though I don’t think Pa meant ta be funny. “No, I don’t think you’ll have a problem.”
“Good.” Pa drew out the word, sent a final glare Stedman’s way, and then we were both out the door. The sheriff didn’t follow. Adam and Joe were already headed this way with the horses—Adam had taken Sport and Cooch down to the livery ta keep them outa the sun, but he’d kept them (and Chubby too) all but ready ta ride. Don’t think any of us felt like lettin’ the grass grow under our feet in this town.
Weren’t nobody around as we mounted up—the place might have been deserted, for all the movement about. Joe’s eyes darkened, if that was still even possible. “Guess you ain’t gonna get an apology, huh big brother?”
Guess not. Didn’t matter. I shook my head. “Don’t need none. Don’t know what it would really mean anyway.” I wheeled Chubby around. “Let’s just get outa here.” I don’t think any of them felt the same as me ’bout that apology, but no one was gonna argue. Not right now. We kicked up the horses and headed west.
Nobody had picked up that noose yet from under the hangin’ tree, and we had ta ride right past it ta get outa town. I didn’t look at it, but it gave me a shiver just knowin’ it was there. Still, I figured it was probably just as well that they was all lookin’ at it yet every time they stuck a head out the door. Maybe they’d think a little next time.
Maybe there wouldn’t be a next time.
All I knew was, I sure wasn’t comin’ back here. The others spread out around me as we reached the outskirts, and we picked up our pace. We’d been in Dutchman Flats for way too long as it was. It was time ta head for home.
*MaryAnn Wilson’s words in the first section are taken directly from the episode.
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