By the time Hap Gilson and his men rode into Sweetwater, the town was in a festive mood. Wagons and buggies, carrying folks from miles in all directions, lined both sides of the street. Tinny piano music and raucous laughter collided with the four riders as they passed the Lucky Lady Saloon.
Wedging their mounts into the crowded rail, they dismounted, hitched their horses and strode across the boardwalk into the hotel.
Tables were scattered around the lobby, doubling as the hotel bar. The clink of dishes and glasses from the dining room emanated from the curtained doorway to the left of the small bar.
Walking through the lobby, Hap Gilson trudged up the staircase followed in single file by Gil Jennings, Arch Wilkes and Paco Sanchez. Walking to the end of the hall, Hap Gilson knocked three times on the door of room 210.
After some shuffling in the room, Turk Ainsley cracked open the door. Seeing Gilson, he unchained the door, opening it to admit his four companions. Tap Willis lay snoring on the bed.
“Where’s the hangman?” asked Gilson.
“Down the hall in 214,” replied Ainsley.
“Is he there now?”
“Been there since he left the dining room.”
“Come on,” said Gilson, motioning to Jennings as he slid back through the door.
Stepping lightly, the outlaw leader led Jennings down the hall to room 214. Motioning Jennings to the other side of the door, Gilson drew his Colt, knocking on the door three times.
Harlan Hancock sat at the small table near the window inspecting the noose he’d just tied in the rope.
“Who is it?” asked Hancock, continuing his inspection.
Gilson knocked three more times. Sighing, Hancock rose from his chair and went to the door. “Who is it?”
“Deputy Marshal,” replied Hap Gilson, moving in front of the door when he heard the key turn in the lock.
When the door cracked open, Gilson kicked it as hard as he could, snapping the door chain, sending Hancock tumbling backwards to the floor. Looking up at the two intruders, Hancock saw the barrel of Gilson’s cocked Colt.
“Howdy, hangman, glad to make your acquaintance,” said Gilson, smiling.
Hap Gilson and Gil Jennings went out the back door of the hotel and down the stairs to the moonlit alley. Ducking between the hotel and the General Store, they stopped at the street, looking toward the dark jail. Scampering across the deserted street, they ducked in beside the jail, hugging the wall. After a moment, Gilson led Jennings down the side of the jail, counting barred windows as they went.
Scooping up a handful of pebbles, Gilson started tossing them, one by one, up through the bars of the window in front of him. When the first pebble came through the window, Charlie Gilson lifted his head from the pillow, looking around the cell. Feeling the second pebble land in his bed, he looked up to see the third pebble come through the window. Jumping up, he pulled the end of the bed to the window.
“That you, Hap?” whispered Charlie through the bars.
“Charlie boy,” said Hap, seeing his brother’s head in the window.
“You come to get me, Hap?”
“No, not tonight, Charlie, but we got a plan. Just sit tight ‘til tomorrow,” whispered Hap.
“Easy for you to say, they ain’t stretchin’ your neck tomorrow.”
“And they ain’t gonna stretch yours, neither. We wanted to let you know we’re here and gonna git you out. Now be quiet and go back to sleep before you wake up that marshal and his deputy.”
Charlie watched Jennings and his brother walk back toward the front of the jail. When he lost sight of them, he pushed his bed back against the wall, crawling under the blanket. A big smile spread across Charlie’s face and he rolled over pulling the blanket up over his shoulders.
Seeing the street still deserted, Gilson and Jennings scampered back the way they’d come. What they didn’t see was Otis Fuller looking through the shuttered window of the office, watching them disappear across the street.