"Red Bates had chuckled cynically. "Mighty convenient! Him gettin' held up with nobody on the stage, and nobody to know the money was there but him!" . . .
Old Tom Pickett hunched his lean shoulders and rested his forearms on his knees. All during the preceding testimony, his eyes had remained on the dusty, boot scarred plank floor of the improvised court room. The evidence against the young stage driver was not overwhelming but it was convincing, and evidence or no, Old Tom knew that Johnny West was guilty.
He had seen it coming when the boy first got sweet on that no account Somers girl, and through her met Greek George and Harve Passman. There was nothing bad about Johnny West, he was a good boy ... but Delia Somers needled him about having so little money, and held Harve and George up for examples. And then, she kept promising things that she never intended to pay off, and Johnny being so much in love couldn't see that she had eyes only for big Harve Passman.
It wasn't smart, the thing Johnny had done. It was a foolish thing, and by now Johnny would be dead sorry. For the first time the boy's eyes were open to what had happened to him, and he was sitting up there, his face gray white, waiting for his sentence. If he didn't get fifteen years he would be lucky.
Johnny West was no responsibility of Pickett's. Not actually, that is. Only that Tom had watched the boy grow up and knew as much how his mind worked as a bronc he had broken to the bit. And then, Johnny's father had come across the Plains with Old Tom, years ago.
The testimony brought out the story clearly enough. There had been twenty thousand in gold riding the stage to Hamilton and no passengers. When the stage came roaring down the street into town, Johnny gasped out a story of being held up. The robbers had taken him off to the side of the road and tied him up, he said, and he was late because he had to get free.
Red Bates had chuckled cynically. "Mighty convenient! Him gettin' held up with nobody on the stage, and nobody to know the money was there but him!"
That was the general opinion. Johnny West had stopped long enough to cache the money, and then had driven on into town and reported the hold up. Johnny had said the bandits had come out of nowhere, and Hamilton profanely acknowledged that on that score he was right.
To put it briefly, nobody but Johnny could say he had been held up, and while there had been many stage holdups in the past, there had been no such activity lately. Moreover, Johnny had been found with some "sun burned" gold in his possession that he swore came off his claim in the Illipahe . The evidence was slight enough, but the crowning joke was the fact that Johnny had said he was tied to a tree. The jury of six men agreed there was no tree on the stage route to Hamilton ... not even a ghost of a tree.
Johnny refused to talk after telling his story, and Old Tom could understand why. He had lied. He had stolen the money. To make it worse, there was big Harve Passman sitting in the court room with Delia Somers, sitting as close together as they could get. And from the wide grin on Harve Passman's face, Tom Pickett was sure that the gambler knew more than a little about where that stage loot had gone. Yet how could he prove it? And how could he free Johnny?
That was what he wanted more than anything else. If he was sure of anything in this world, he was sure that Johnny had learned his lesson, but fifteen years in prison would wreck the boy's life. If he was to have another chance, it must be now.
Pickett stared at Brian McGivern. Brian was an old timer, too, and he was Johnny's lawyer, secretly paid by Tom Pickett. In this court room nobody had noticed Old Tom. He was just another gray headed, wind worried old prospector, almost unknown in Hamilton except by sight. And nobody had noticed him today, he was sure of that. Only McGivern knew who was paying him, and Brian got to his feet now, following his careful instructions.
"Your Honor, gentlemen of the jury, ladies and gentlemen! It seems," he glared around from under bushy gray brows, "that my client, this excellent young man of character, is being convicted of a crime without due examination of the evidence!
"Admitting that my client left Pioche with twenty thousand in gold in the box! Admitting that he arrived here without it! Admitting that you have uncovered no evidence of any sort, except my client's unsubstantiated word that he was held up! Admitting that he had gold similar to that taken from the Pequop claim, I still protest the conduct of this trial and the examination of the evidence!
"Gentlemen! Men have been hung on less evidence than is offered here today! I grant you that, and hung rightly in many cases! Nevertheless, there is other sun burned gold in this country than that found in the Pequops, and the story of my client that he found it on his claim on the Illipah could be true!
"I am aware that Stag Benson swore that no such gold was ever found in that very claim, and no gold at all, so far as he knows, and he should know as he worked it for three years. Yet he could be wrong. Such gold might have been found there.
"Moreover, you gentlemen say there is no tree anywhere along the stage route. My esteemed colleague, this bearded blatherskite," Tobe Mahan came to his feet, his face red, "maintains there is no such tree! I say that tree is as plain as the beard on his face, and I further say that my fat headed colleague wouldn't know a tree if he saw one! And that he never passed that point on the stage road in his life when he was sober!"
Mahan glared at McGivern, and then at the judge. "I ain't objectin', Jake," he said to the judge, "because I aim to get this fat toad out an' make him eat them words along with a good mouthful of Hamilton dust! I said there wasn't no tree along that road, an' I still say it! Hell, ever'body knows there no tree there!"
"Ah?" McGivern leaned forward, resting, for the moment, his bulging vest on the table top. "There isn't? Now, I take it, Tobe, that you can see? I take it that at times you are sober? And you say there's no tree on that road?"
"There sure ain't!" Mahan stated flatly. "I know that there road like I know my own dooryard! I been over it twenty times if once!"
Red Bates, Harve Passman and Judge Jake Grannan all stared at McGivern curiously. None of them could remember the tree, nor could young Johnny West, who knew there was no tree, but whose future depended on Brian McGivern proving his point ... whatever it was.
"Know that road like your own dooryard, do you?" McGivern chuckled. "Been over it twenty times, have you? Ever' been to White Sage Valley Stage Station?"
"Fifty times!" Tobe blustered.
McGivern leaned forward again. "All right, is there a cross bar on the corral gate?"
"Huh?" Tobe Mahan drew up sharply. "Why! Why ... I ... why sure there is! Of course!"
"What sense does that there question make?" Judge Grannan demanded. "What's that corral gate got to do with the crime?"
"I'm testin' his powers of observation," McGivern replied, "he says there's no tree on that road. Says he knows it like his own door yard! Says he's been over the road twenty times! Says he's been to White Sage fifty times! Well, ever' time he goes there he puts his horse in the corral, any fool knows that! So I wanted to know if there was a bar on that gate, an' he says there is."
McGivern turned. "Joe, you said there was no tree on that road. How about that bar?"
Joe, called on, puckered his brow. "I cain't rightly say, Brian. I sure cain't. Seems like..."
"We don't want no seemin'!" McGivern stated. "Pete, you own that station. Is there a bar on that gate?"
Pete shouldered to his feet, teetering on his high heeled boots. "Hain't now, an' never has been!" then he sat down.
"So much," McGivern said expansively, "for the powers of observation of my colleague! If he can't see well enough to see the bar on a gate, he sure can't see well enough to either see a tree on the Hamilton road, or to rub my nose in the dirt. Gentlemen...!" McGivern lifted a dramatic hand. "I suggest we all get onto our horses, or into Pete's wagon, which I've hired for the purpose, an' ride out an' see if there's a tree there! Also, we'll see if there's gold on that claim! On those two items, I rest my case!"
Johnny West stared, wide eyed. What had McGivern done? Why, he was as good as in the pen right now! He sank back. He had it coming, anyway. What a fool he was to think he could get away with a thing like that! And there that Delia Somers was, the one who put him up to it, even suggested where it might be done. There she was, holding hands with Harve Passman!
Brian McGivern glanced hastily toward the back of the court room and heaved a sigh of relief when he noticed that Old Tom Pickett was gone. It would be a feather in his hat if he won this case despite the fact that they had little against Johnny but the fact that he had started out with the gold and ended without it, and they had found some evidence on him.
It had been Old Tom who gave him the case, who told him to back up Johnny's story of the tree and the gold.
McGivern glanced worriedly at Harve Passman. Secretly, he was afraid of the big gambler just as he was afraid of Greek George. He was a fool to have allowed Tom Pickett to talk him into this!
Then he grinned. Well, it had been fun, making a fool of Tobe, and the townspeople had liked it. They would be talking him up around the saloons now, and repeating the story with gusto. To have a proper ending he must free his client, but he had no confidence that it could be done. Frontier justice was very direct and positive. Cases that in the East would never have been considered proven were thought to be clear enough out here. If a man was found in possession of a stolen horse he was a horse thief. That was logical. It was also a hanging matter, and the idea that the man might have purchased the horse from the thief would have been considered only slightly ... unless ready proof was at hand.
With the six men of the jury in Pete's wagon, and others mounted on horses or in buckboards, they set out for the site of the tree. Among the others was Harve Passman.
McGivern looked at the gambler uncertainly. All of Hamilton knew that Johnny was crazy about Delia Somers, and all of Hamilton but Johnny knew that she was wild about Harve. Yet Old Tom had been sure that it had been Harve and Greek George who were somehow behind the holdup, that they had profited by it, and had been instrumental in getting Delia to egg Johnny on.
In a brief and guarded talk outside the jail window the night before, Tom Pickett had consulted Johnny and Brian McGivern had been there. He remembered the story that Johnny had told, but had refused to relate on the witness stand.
- END OF FRAGMENT -