The stifling heat hung over the makeshift courtroom enveloping the twelve men walking from the open door of the saloon’s back room. Angling up the staircase, they resumed their seats on the stairs facing the three tables in front of them.
To the right of the staircase, at a lone table, sat Judge Thomas Becker, who regularly held court in The Four Aces Saloon on his visits to the town of Sweetwater.
To the left of the staircase, facing Judge Becker, were two tables. The one closest to the staircase was presently unoccupied. At the near end of the other table sat attorney Jacob Wyatt, Marshal Cooper Smith at the far end and Wyatt’s client, Charlie Gilson, who was accused of killing a man in a saloon fight, sat between them in shackles.
Spectators to the proceedings sat in the rows of chairs arranged behind the two tables. Everyone’s attention was on the twelve men who’d entered the room.
“Has the jury reached a decision?” asked Judge Becker when the jury settled themselves on the staircase.
“Yes sir, Judge, we have,” said Asa Hartley, rising from his seat on the stairs.
Judge Becker looked over at the three men sitting at the table across from him. “The defendant will rise and face the jury.”
Jacob Wyatt and Marshal Smith rose from their seats, but Charlie Gilson remained slouched in his chair.
“Marshal Smith,” said Judge Becker, nodding at Charlie Gilson.
“Get up, Gilson,” said Cooper Smith, looking down at his prisoner.
After a moment’s hesitation, Gilson heard a shotgun being hammered back. He looked over at Deputy Marshal Otis Fuller, sitting in a chair against the wall next to the table. Fuller waggled the shotgun at Gilson.
“Judge said stand up,” he whispered with a smile.
Slowly, Gilson stood up between his attorney and the Marshal. Satisfied, Judge Becker turned back to the jury. “Tell the court your decision.”
Asa Hartley cleared his throat. “Judge, the jury finds Charlie Gilson guilty of killin’ Jodie Wilkins.”
When the room erupted in cheers, Judge Becker beat his gavel on the table until the outburst subsided.
“Another outburst like that and I’ll clear this court,” warned Becker and turned his attention to Charlie Gilson.
“Charlie Gilson, you’ve been found guilty of murder by a jury of your peers. As a result, I sentence you to be hanged by your neck until you are dead. Sentence to be carried out one week from today. May God have mercy on your soul.” Judge Becker beat his gavel on the table. “Court is adjourned. Marshal Smith, the prisoner is remanded to your custody.”
“It ain’t never gonna happen!” shouted Charlie Gilson. “When my brother finds out, he’ll come in here and burn this town to the ground.”
“Come on, Gilson, let’s go,” said Cooper Smith, guiding Gilson from the table.
A cowboy sitting alone in the last row of chairs watched as they hurried Charlie Gilson from the saloon. Rising from his chair, he went out onto the boardwalk, pulled the fixings from his shirt pocket and rolled a quirley.
He struck a match on the handrail, lit the quirley and watched the two lawmen escort Charlie Gilson through the door of the Marshal’s Office. He threw the spent match into the street, stepped off the boardwalk and untied a sorrel from the hitch rail. He stepped into the saddle, turned the horse and rode out of town.
Otis Fuller stopped at the window as the Marshal escorted his prisoner through the office and into the cellblock, locking him in the nearest cell visible from the barred window of the door. Smith walked back into the office and threw the keys on his desk.
“What’re you looking at?” asked Cooper, hanging his hat on a wall peg next to the door.
“There was a fella sittin’ in the back row all by his lonesome during the trial. He was still there when we left with Gilson. He just left town.”
“I just got a bad feelin’ about him is all. Lotta things can happen between now and next week. When word gets out we’re gonna have a hangin’, it’ll look like the Fourth of July around here.”
‘Nothing we can do about it, Otis. Judge Becker sentenced him and we gotta carry it out.”
“Why do we have ta wait a week? Why couldn’t we just hang ‘im in the mornin’ and be done with it?”
“Where were you going to hang him, Deputy?” asked Judge Becker, walking through the open office door, “throw a rope over a rafter at the livery and hang him in a barn? Maybe there’s a tree outside of town where you could throw a rope.”
“No sir,” said Otis, turning back to the window.
“Marshal, I’ve arranged for the building of a gallows to start tomorrow. I’ve also wired Fort Smith and they’ll make sure someone is here within the week to execute the sentence. All you have to do is make sure the prisoner is there.” Judge Becker threw a side-glance at Otis Fuller.
“He’ll be there, Judge,” promised Cooper.
“I’ll be leaving on the morning stage, I have to be in Fort Worth in two days.” Judge Becker extended his hand to Cooper Smith. “See you in a couple of months.”
“Deputy,” said Becker as he walked out the door.
Otis Fuller didn’t leave the window until Judge Becker crossed the street and entered the hotel.
Gil Jennings walked his sorrel through the trees to the brush-hidden crevice in the rocks. Ducking his head as the horse stepped through the crevice, he straightened up when they came out on the other side into a small clearing where five men sat huddled around a blazing campfire.
He reined up at a small spring, dismounted and let his horse drink while he unsaddled it. He put a couple handfuls of grain from his right saddlebag into his hat and let the sorrel feed.
He slapped his hat against his leg, picked up his saddle and rifle, carried them to the clearing and dropped them near the fire. He took a tin cup from his left saddlebag and filled it with coffee from a pot on the fire.
“We got trouble,” said Jennings, standing at the fire sipping the steaming liquid from his cup.
Hap Gilson lay on his bedroll near the fire smoking a quirley, his hat partially covering his eyes. “What kind of trouble?”
“They’re gonna hang your little brother.”
Hap Gilson lifted the hat from his eyes. “They’re gonna what?”
Jennings took another sip of his coffee. “They’re gonna stretch your little brother’s neck. He’s sittin’ in the jail in Sweetwater right now. He got drunk and killed some sodbuster. Had his trial today and the judge sentenced him to hang.”
“Where were you when all this was happenin’?”
“I didn’t get into Sweetwater until they already had him locked up. Wouldn’t a mattered none no way. Cain’t nobody control your brother, Hap, not even you.”
“We’ll pay Sweetwater a little visit in the mornin’,” said Gilson, putting his hat back over his eyes.
“You’re thinkin’ about bustin’ him out, ain’t ya? Cooper Smith is the Marshal in Sweetwater. Think about that,” warned Jennings, tossing the last of his coffee into the fire.
Leaning back in a chair outside the Marshal’s office, Otis Fuller sat with a scattergun across his lap. He listened to the staccato of the carpenter’s hammers constructing the gallows and watched Emil Dessler load travel bags into the boot of the stagecoach.
For the first time in three months the noon stage would be leaving on time. He’d always wondered why they called it the noon stage, because it never arrived or left before two or three o’clock.
Dessler greeted each of the passengers as they climbed into the stagecoach and exchanged a handshake with Judge Becker. Climbing to the top of the stage, Dessler slapped the reins and cursed the horses into motion, rocking the stagecoach on its thoroughbraces.
Otis watched the stagecoach thunder down the street and switched his attention to six riders coming toward him.. As they neared the Marshal’s Office, the Deputy rose from his chair and leaned into the doorway.
Otis watched the riders dismount at the hitch rail and he slipped his finger through the trigger guard of the scattergun. He rested it in the crook of his arm and cradled it like a baby. When the six riders stepped up on the boardwalk, Otis sidestepped and blocked the open doorway.
“Howdy, name’s Hap Gilson, I understand you have my brother locked up in your jail,” said the man leading the way.
“He’s here,” replied Otis.
“I’d like to see him.”
“Gotta talk to the Marshal,” said Otis, stepping from the doorway.
The deputy hammered back the scattergun, leveling it at the five riders behind Gilson. “No reason for you to move, he ain’t your brother.”
Hap Gilson turned in the doorway. “You boys go on to the saloon, I’ll meet you there.”
Gil Jennings stopped at the edge of the boardwalk as the other four riders remounted and walked their horses to the Four Aces Saloon.
“I’ll wait for Hap,” he said, reaching into his shirt pocket for the small sack of tobacco and papers. He stood facing Otis Fuller and rolled a quirley.
Cooper moved from behind his desk when Hap Gilson entered the office.
“I’d like to see my brother, Marshal,” said Gilson.
Cooper picked up the keys from his desk and unlocked the cellblock door. “The hogleg stays here,” he said, pointing to Gilson’s holster.
After a slight hesitation, Hap placed his gun on Cooper’s desk and strolled through the open door.
“I knew you’d come, Hap,” shouted Charlie Gilson, hopping off the cot, “When you gettin’ me out?”
“You couldn’t stay out of trouble, could you, little brother? You’ve caused me a big problem.”
“You gotta get me outta here, Hap, they’re goin’ to hang me.”
Hap Gilson looked back at the door, seeing Cooper Smith through the barred window.
“Just sit tight, Charlie, I’ll think of something,” whispered Gilson.
“You need anything?” asked Hap, turning to the door.
“Bring me a bottle before you go.”
“Ain’t that what got you in here?”
Cooper closed and locked the cellblock door when Hap came back into the office.
“Thank you, Marshal,” said Gilson, picking up his Colt from Cooper’s desk. He settled it into its holster and continued on toward the office door.
“Whatever you’re thinking, Gilson, don’t,” warned Smith, tossing the keys onto his desk.
“Have a nice day, Marshal,” replied Hap, stepping out onto the boardwalk.
Gil Jennings followed his boss into the Four Aces Saloon and found their four companions sitting at a table against the back wall.
“Ainsley, you and Willis stay in town and watch the jail. I want to know if you see anything happen,” ordered Gilson, dropping a double eagle in front of each of them. “Don’t drink it up all in one night or you’ll be sleepin’ in the street. The rest of us are going back to camp. I don’t want nobody hung over when I get ready to move.”
Cooper Smith stepped up onto the boardwalk as Emil Dessler jerked back on the reins bringing the horses and stagecoach to a skidding stop in front of the stage depot.
Dessler set the brake with his left foot, wrapped the reins around the brake lever and climbed down from his perch atop the stagecoach. He shifted his chaw to the other cheek, spit a stream of tobacco into the street and opened the stagecoach door.
“Only one passenger today, Coop,” said Dessler, wiping his mouth with the back of his gloved hand.
Cooper watched a man, in a black suit and black derby, duck his head as he stepped from the stage onto the platform. The Marshal smiled as Harlan Hancock brushed the dust from his coat.
In his time as a lawman, Cooper had the necessity to meet Hancock a time or two and always thought he looked more like a school teacher than a hangman, but, Harlan Hancock was efficient at what he did.
“Marshal Smith,” said Hancock, extending his hand to the lawman.
“Hello, Mister Hancock,” replied Cooper, always surprised by the firmness of the handshake of the frail looking hangman.
Unstrapping the baggage boot at the back of the stagecoach, Emil Dessler set two large carpetbags at the edge of the platform near the two men.
“There you are, Mister Hancock, enjoy your stay in Sweetwater,” said Dessler, waving as he walked past the two men and into the depot.
“I shall like to see the subject after I freshen up a bit, if you don’t mind, Marshal Smith,” requested Hancock, picking up his carpetbags.
“I’ve arranged for your room at the hotel, Mister Hancock. Drop by the office when you’re ready.”
“Thank you, Marshal,” said Hancock. He picked up his bags and stepped off the platform toward the hotel.
Otis Fuller, with his feet up on the desk, sat in the Marshal’s chair reading the latest edition of the Sweetwater Star for the third time. He looked up when Hancock came through the door.
“I was looking for Marshal Smith,” said Hancock, stopping at the desk.
Otis dropped his feet to the floor, folded the newspaper in half and laid it on the desk. “Marshal Smith is having a bite to eat. I’m his Deputy, Otis Fuller. Who might you be?”
Hancock straightened up, hands on the lapels of his coat. “I, sir, am Harlan Hancock and
I am here to execute the sentence handed down by Judge Thomas Becker.”
“Oh, you’re the hangman.”
“That is a very barbaric term, I must say, Mister Fuller. Now, may I see the subject?”
Rising from his chair, Otis picked up the ring of keys from the desk. “The SUBJECT is in here,” he said, unlocking the cellblock door. He swung it open and followed Hancock into the cellblock.
“Stand up, Gilson, gentleman here wants to fit you for your necktie,” ordered Fuller.
“He what?” asked Gilson, looking up at them from his cot.
“Stand up,” repeated Fuller.
With a look of irritation, Gilson rose from the cot, standing in a slouch.
“A little scrawny, wouldn’t you say?” Hancock said to Fuller.
“Scrawny, I’ll show you scrawny,” shouted Gilson, reaching through the bars of the cell causing Hancock to take a step back.
“A little extra weight ought to do the trick,” said the hangman and turned from the cell.
“Yeah, we want his neck to snap real clean. Don’t want him dancing around,” taunted Otis, looking at Charlie Gilson over his shoulder as he followed Hancock out the door.
“It ain’t gonna happen. Hap’s gonna get me outta here,” shouted Gilson, as the Deputy locked the door.
“What’s all the shoutin’?” asked Cooper Smith, as Harlan and Otis walked back into the office.
“Gilson took exception to being fitted for his noose is all,” replied Otis.
“Thank you for your help, Deputy Fuller,” said Hancock, “I have some work to do and only a couple of days to it in.”
“Marshal,” said Hancock, tipping his derby to Cooper as he walked out the door.
“I’ll sure be glad when these next coupla days is over,” said Otis.
* * * *
Hap Gilson looked up from his plate of beans and salt pork when Tuck Ainsley rode into camp. The outlaw dismounted, took a tin cup from his saddlebag,walked to the fire and poured himself some coffee.
“Well?” said Gilson, as he watched Ainsley drink his coffee.
“Hangman come to town today,” said Ainsley between sips.
“How you know it was the hangman?” inquired Gilson, spooning another bite of food into his mouth.
“Seen ‘im once before. Strung a fella up in Yuma. Pretty good at what he done too. Snapped that fella’s neck like a dry twig. Didn’t dance at all.”
Hap Gilson turned to Gil Jennings. “How much time we got?”
“Judge said a week. Way I figger, we got ‘til day after tomorrow.”
“That’ll be plenty of time. Here’s what we’re gonna do.”
* * * *
Finishing his rounds, Cooper Smith walked down the deserted boardwalk toward his office turning doorknobs and looking in windows, when he noticed a lone rider dismount in front of his office. He caught a glint of metal as the rider stepped up on the boardwalk in front of the Marshal’s Office.
“Cooper Smith?” asked the rider as Cooper reached him. A US Marshal’s badge adorned the shirt of the newcomer.
“I’m Smith,” said Cooper.
The rider held out his hand. “I’m Lucius Maddox, Judge Becker sent me. He said you might be in need of some help.”
Cooper Smith smiled as he shook hands with Maddox. “And welcome help you’ll be. Come on in, I want you to meet my Deputy.”
"Otis, I’m comin’ in,” said Cooper as he turned to the door.
“Come ahead,” replied Otis. Cooper Smith led Maddox through the door.
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 Four Aces Saloon.
They wedged their mounts into the crowded rail and dismounted. They 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.
They strode through the lobby and trudged up the staircase in single file. They walked to the end of the hall and 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 and opened 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 the hangman’s room.. He motioned Jennings to the other side of the door and drew his Colt, knocking on the door three times with the barrel of his gun.
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 and 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. They ducked between the Hotel and the General Store and stopped at the street. Gilson looked toward the dark jail, jerked his head at Jennings and they scampered across the deserted street, hugging the wall as they ducked in beside the Jail.
After a moment, Gilson led Jennings down the side of the jail, counting barred windows as they went. Hap scooped up a handful of pebbles and started tossing them, one by one, 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 and looked around the cell. He felt the second pebble land in his bed and looked up to see the third pebble come through the window. He jumped up and pulled the end of the cot to the window.
“That you, Hap?” whispered Charlie through the bars.
“Charlie boy,” replied 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 and crawled under the blanket. A big smile spread across his face and he rolled over pulling the blanket up over his shoulders.
Seeing the street still deserted, Hap Gilson and Gil 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.
Sipping steaming mugs of coffee, Cooper Smith and Otis Fuller looked up from the desk when Lucius Maddox stepped through the cellblock door.
“Sure am glad I’m a law abiding citizen,” said Maddox, stretching his back. “I couldn’t sleep on those beds too many nights.”
He wandered over to the stove, took a mug from the rack on the wall and filled it from the coffee pot.
“When’s all this supposed to happen?’ asked Maddox, going to the window.
“Noon,” replied Cooper.
“Ol’ Judge Becker sure didn’t do you boys no favor, did he? Makin’ you wait a week to hang Gilson at high noon,” said Maddox, sipping his coffee. “Folks is already startin’ to line up outside.”
“You hear anythin’ last night, Lucius?” asked Otis.
Maddox thought for a moment and shook his head. “Not that I recollect.”
“Gilson had a coupla visitors last night,” said Cooper.
“Hap?” asked Maddox.
“And his sidekick,” added Otis.
“Think they’ll try somethin?” asked Maddox.
“I’m sure of it,” said Cooper, “only they’ll wait until we take him outside.”
Maddox stood at the window looking at the gallows across the street. “You know, it sure seems funny Ol’ Hancock ain’t out testin’ his rope. Here it is, four hours ‘til the hangin’ and he ain’t been out there once. Usually ‘bout this time he’s trying to wear out that trap door.”
Cooper rose from his chair and stepped to the window next to Maddox.
“You know, you’re right,” agreed Cooper, “he ain’t even got a noose hangin’ up there. Ain’t like Hancock not to be ready.”
“Maybe he thought, after seein’ Gilson, he figgered to just add a little extry weight,” said Otis.
Maddox shook his head. “Ain’t the way Hancock works, especially with a brand new gallows. He shoulda been out there before now.”
Cooper Smith turned from the window, stepped to the gun rack and retrieved a Winchester. “Lucius, maybe we ought to go check on Hancock. Otis, you stay here with our friend and make sure he don’t get any more unexpected visitors.”
Lucius set his coffee mug on the desk and followed Cooper out the door.
Sorting mail, Lester Hasgood turned from the pigeonholes behind the registration desk when the two lawmen walked into the lobby.
“Mornin’ Lester,” said Cooper.
“Marshal, what can I do for you this morning?”
“You seen Harlan Hancock today?”
Lester thought for a moment and shook his head. “No sir, I don’t believe I have.”
“What room is he in?”
“Two fourteen,” said Hasgood, grabbing a ring of keys from the desk. “I’ll go with you.”
Cooper and Lucius followed the desk clerk up the stairs to Hancock’s room.
“Mister Hancock,” said Hasgood, knocking on the door.
Not receiving an answer, Hasgood tried the doorknob, opening the door. He gave a surprised look to the lawmen and pushed the door open. Hancock’s carpetbag lay on the bed unpacked.
“It appears Mister Hancock is not here,” said Hasgood.
“We can see that, Lester,” said Cooper, “but, where is he?”
Otis watched his two comrades step off the boardwalk and walk back to the jail.
“Hancock’s gone,” said Cooper.
“Gone where?” asked Otis.
Cooper shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “Beats me.”
“Bet if we find Hap Gilson, we’ll find Harlan Hancock,” said Otis.
* * * *
Hap Gilson put his ear to the door of Ainsley’s room when he heard Hasgood knocking on Hancock’s door. He looked at the hangman who sat bound and gagged in a corner of the room.
“They’re lookin’ for you, hangman,” said Gilson after Cooper Smith and Lucius Maddox went back down the stairs. “Maybe, it’s time we give ‘em what they’re lookin’ for.”
Gil Jennings stuck his arm through the coiled rope, sliding it up to his shoulder. He grabbed Harlan Hancock under the arm and helped the bound hangman to his feet.
“You know what you gotta do?” asked Hap Gilson.
“Hap, we been over it so many times, a danged retard could do it. Relax, your little brother will be in the saddle before you know it.”
Jennings led Hancock from the room, out the back door of the hotel and down the flight of stairs to the alley.
“Make sure you wait for me to call out,” shouted Hap Gilson from the top of the stairs.
Jennings waved at Gilson and led the hangman down the alley. Arch Wilkes, Paco Sanchez, Turk Ainsley and Tap Willis were waiting for Gilson when he came back to the room.
“Willis, I want you on the balcony with that Henry of yours. Ainsley, you, Sanchez and Wilkes come with me. If any shootin’ starts, you just make sure Charlie don’t get hit.”
Tap Willis went out the door to the balcony, as the remaining gunmen followed Gilson down the stairs, through the lobby and out onto the boardwalk.
The gathering crowd paid no attention to the gunmen as they stepped into the street. On the balcony, Willis hunkered down behind the hotel sign and maneuvered to get the best view of the jail. Ainsley, Wilkes and Sanchez spread out behind Gilson when they stopped in front of the Marshal’s Office.
“Marshal Cooper Smith,” shouted Hap Gilson.
* * * *
Gil Jennings guided Harlan Hancock to the back of the livery and pushed him through the open barn door. Stopping at the ladder to the loft, Jennings motioned Hancock up the ladder with his thumb.
“You expect me to climb a ladder when you’ve tied my hands?” objected Hancock.
“Your feet ain’t tied and your hands are in front of you, start climbin’,” replied Jennings. Pulling his Colt, he waggled it at the hangman.
Hancock took a long look toward the loft and slowly climbed the ladder, one rung at a time, stopping below the edge of the loft.
“Climb,” said Jennings, reaching Hancock.
Hooking his hands around the top rung of the ladder, Hancock took a step up. When Jennings followed him up, Hancock held tight to the top rung of the ladder, kicking downward with both feet, striking Jennings in the head. The outlaw lost his balance and fell from the ladder to the dirt floor amid a cloud of dust. The hangman climbed into the loft and looked down at his motionless captor.
Attacking the knot of rope with his teeth, Hancock worked to free his bound wrists. Dropping the rope to the floor of the loft, he saw movement from Jennings on the floor of the barn. The outlaw reached for his Colt, while trying to get to his knees.
Harlan Hancock quickly surveyed the loft, finding a pitchfork stuck in a pile of hay in a corner. Pulling the pitchfork from the hay, the hangman held it up in one hand like a spear and moved his hand along the shaft for the right balance.
“Hancock,” shouted Jennings, swaying on his feet, struggling to keep his balance.
Harlan Hancock knew he was only going to get one chance, so he’d better make it good. He had to steady himself to make a good throw.
He looked through the floorboards and caught a glimpse of Jennings. He bounced the pitchfork in his hand to test the balance. Taking a deep breath, he rushed to the edge of the loft, making his throw at the first glimpse of Jennings.
The outlaw fired a wild shot at Hancock, an instant before the hangman launched the pitchfork. It found its mark in Jennings’ chest, sending him onto the floor of the empty stall behind him, his gun sliding under the rail of the neighboring stall.
Jennings raised his head, looking at the tines of the pitchfork buried in his chest. He made a feeble attempt to remove the pitchfork, before dropping his head back to the floor. He looked around and coughed once. A bloody forth appeared on his lips. He watched the hangman climb down the ladder, let out a gurgled breath and fell silent.
Hancock walked into the stall and looked down into Jennings’ lifeless eyes. He removed the pitchfork, tossed it on the floor and looked around for the outlaw’s gun. Finding the Colt in the next stall, he went out the back door of the barn and ran down the alley toward the hotel.
* * * *
“We got company,” said Otis, standing at the window when Hap Gilson called out.
“Gilson?” asked Cooper Smith, getting a nod from Otis in return. “Who’s with ‘im?”
“I see three,” replied Otis, taking a quick look at the buildings directly across from the jail.
Lucius stepped to the window on the other side of the door and concentrated his search on the balconies and second floor windows of the buildings across the street.
“Marshal Smith, I want to talk to you,” shouted Gilson again.
“I got movement on the hotel balcony,” warned Lucius, “hunkered down behind the sign.”
“That leaves one unaccounted for,” said Otis.
“I’m listening, Gilson,” said Cooper, from the partially open door.
“I want to make a deal for my brother.”
“Can’t do that, Gilson, your brother’s gonna hang for what he done.”
“I can’t let that happen, Marshal. Besides, your hangman seems to have disappeared.”
Just then, a gunshot rang out from the direction of the livery stable.
“Go see what that was,” Gilson ordered Ainsley, who jogged toward the livery.
“Sounds like we just found out where Hancock is,” said Cooper.
Otis Fuller checked the load of his scattergun and snapped it shut.
“Hancock might need some help,” he said and slipped out the back door of the jail.
* * * *
Turk Ainsley drew his Colt when he reached the door of the livery. He slipped inside the barn and listened for a moment.
“Jennings,” shouted Ainsley, listening intently for any sound.
He stepped around the corner of the end stall, moving cautiously down the length of the barn and looking in every stall as he went. He spotted Jennings and took a quick look around before kneeling in the stall next to the outlaw’s body. The four bloody holes in Jennings’ shirt and the pitchfork lying nearby told him all he needed to know.
“I guess the hangman had more sand than we thought,” he said, rising and turning to leave the stall.
“Hold it right there and drop the hogleg.”
Ainsley stopped and looked at Otis Fuller who was looking at him down the barrel of his scattergun.
“I’ll cut you in two if you even think about it,” warned Otis when Ainsley hesitated.
“I ain’t goin’ to sit in no prison cell,” replied Ainsley.
“Then you best make your move,” challenged Otis, still looking down the barrel of the scattergun.
Suddenly, the outlaw swung his Colt around and Otis cut loose with both barrels of the scattergun, propelling Ainsley backwards into the dirt of the barn floor. The Deputy drew his pistol as he walked up to the fallen outlaw and kicked Ainsley’s gun across the floor. Otis holstered his own Colt when he saw the outlaw’s lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling.
“Now to find Hancock,” said Otis, reloading the scattergun.
* * * *
Hearing the scattergun, Hap Gilson looked toward the livery, wanting to see Ainsley, but realized his plan to rescue his brother was falling apart.
“Watch the balcony,” said Cooper to Lucius. He opened the door and stepped out onto the boardwalk.
“It’s over, Gilson, drop your iron in the dirt,” ordered Cooper.
Hap Gilson looked back around to see the Marshal standing on the boardwalk.
“It ain’t over ‘til I get my brother,” he said.
Cooper glanced up at the balcony seeing movement behind the sign and stepped off the boardwalk into the street.
* * * *
Harlan Hancock crept up the back steps of the hotel and into the back door on the second floor. With Jennings’ pistol at the ready, he stepped lightly down the long hallway. Hearing the shotgun blast, he hesitated slightly, continuing down the hallway to the double doors of the front balcony. He saw Tap Willis bring the rifle to his shoulder and he pulled open the balcony doors.
Willis wheeled and triggered a shot as he rose from behind the sign. Hancock felt the sting of the bullet tugging at his sleeve as he returned the outlaw’s fire, hitting Willis in the shoulder. As the outlaw levered his rifle, Hancock fired a second time, hitting Willis in the upper chest sending him over the balcony rail to the street.
Hearing the commotion, Hap Gilson turned in time to see Willis raise a cloud of dust as he hit the ground. Hancock peered over the rail and Gilson drew his Colt.
“Gilson,” shouted Cooper Smith, drawing his Colt as Gilson wheeled around.
Two gunshots sounded as one. Gilson’s shot was wide, but the Marshal’s hit its mark. The outlaw folded up as Cooper’s bullet caught him in the stomach. Falling to his knees, Gilson looked up at his foe in disbelief, his Colt slipping from his fingers. After a teetering moment, Gilson fell face first to the street. Without firing a shot, Arch Wilkes and Paco Sanchez dropped their guns and threw their hands up in the air.
Cooper walked to the dead outlaw, turning him over with the toe of his boot. The spreading stain on Gilson’s shirt told Smith the fight was over. He thumbed the spent shell from his Colt and replaced it from his gunbelt. He looked up and watched Otis hurry toward him from the livery.
“There’s two more in the barn,” said Otis. “I got one of ‘em and I guess Hancock got the other.”
“He got that one too,” said Cooper, nodding toward the outlaw’s corpse lying at an unnatural angle.
Both lawmen shifted their gaze when they heard footsteps on the boardwalk in front of the hotel. Holding the gun at his side, the hangman stepped into the street. He stopped in front of the two lawmen and offered his weapon, butt first, to Cooper.
“I think we can go on with our appointed duty now, Marshal” commented Hancock and pulled a watch from the small pocket in his pants.
He glanced at the time. “I’ll have just enough time to freshen up a bit,” he said, returning the watch to his pocket.
“I think you should see Doc first,” advised Cooper, noticing the bloody tear in Hancock’s sleeve.
“It’s just a scratch, Marshal, nothing to worry about. Although, I’ve ruined a shirt and will have to buy another before I leave town.”
Hancock started to leave, but turned back to the lawmen. “I’ll be back within the hour. I have a lot to get ready.”
He strode back to the hotel and disappeared into the lobby.
Lucius greeted Cooper and Otis when they returned to the office with the two remaining outlaws and deposited them in a waiting cell.
“What now?” asked Lucius.
“I believe Charlie Gilson has an appointment with the hangman,” replied Cooper.
Emil Dessler brought the stagecoach thundering down the street as the three lawmen stepped out onto the boardwalk from the Marshal’s Office.
“Maybe you boys can get your town back to normal now,” said Lucius, as he shook hands with first, Cooper, then Otis.
With the much talked about event of the previous day finally over, the once crowded street was finally returning to its normal routine.
“Make sure you let Judge Becker know what a grand time we’ve had around here over the past week,” said Otis, watching Lucius unhitch and mount his horse.
“I’ll surely do that,” said Lucius, waving as he turned his mount and rode out of town.
* * * *
Harlan Hancock stood outside the stage depot watching Emil Dessler load the luggage when Cooper and Otis stepped onto the platform.
“Hear you boys had a little excitement, yestiddy. Sorry, I missed it,” said Dessler, sending a stream of tobacco into the street.
“Yeah, it just made our day, Emil,” said Otis, as the grizzled stage driver buckled up the luggage boot.
The hangman stepped up to the two lawmen. “Gentlemen, it has definitely been an experience,” he said, tipping his derby. He turned and stepped up into the stagecoach.
Dessler climbed atop the stagecoach and threaded the ribbons through his fingers. He cursed the horses and slapped the reins, starting the stagecoach forward, rocking on its thoroughbraces.
Hancock looked out the window as they passed the cemetery on the edge of town and scanned the five fresh graves. He leaned back in his seat and tipped his derby over his eyes.