McCaughlin adjusted the red-checked neckerchief over his face, and slipped into the doorway where the shadows would hide him from any passerby. He slipped a piece of stiff wire from his pocket and deftly picked the lock.
He glanced around the street. Not a person was in sight, although he heard the sounds of raucouslaughter coming from the nearby saloon. All the better. He thought, Their laughter will cover any noises I might make.
He opened the door, and slipped into the bank, closing the door behind him, and locking it. Enough light filtered through the half closed blinds on the windows to enable him to see the inside of the bank clearly. This was the part he liked, exploring an unknown bank, discovering all its secrets. He wandered around the room, and gently tapped on the cheerily painted walls. He opened each door, noting the closet-like designs and the air vents placed at eye-level.
Walking past the marble counter, he spotted the vault. It had an old-fashioned tumbler lock. He stifled a chuckle, and approached it. Gently he began twisting the worn dial, listening closely to the rattling tumblers. Within seconds he had the vault open, and was staring at the stacks of bills, and bags of coins. He sifted through them. There were mostly ones and fives, but he found a handful of twenties stuck way in the back. He stuffed the twenties underneath his leather gun-belt, and grabbed a large bag of coinage. He closed the vault and locked it, then headed towards the door.
Before he was halfway to the door, the sound of approaching footsteps caused him to dive for cover behind the counter. The footsteps came closer, and stopped at the door. He heard a key click into the lock and turn, and the door opened.
“Wait here a second, Judge, and I'll get the money.” A man walked past the counter, and quickly opened the safe. He grabbed a stack of bills and brought them to the counter. Tearing off the paper band he counted off a dozen bills and handed them to the judge. The banker picked up the rest of the bills and turned towards the safe. He didn't take a step before a gunshot blasted the stillness of the night. The banker slumped to the ground with a groan, the bills flying unheeded.
McCaughlin cringed back into the corner between the counter and wall, hoping the shadows would be sufficient to hide him. He watched the judge come around the counter, and stoop to snatch up the bills laying on the floor. After picking up all the bills on the ground, the judge stood and walked over to the safe. He pulled a sack out of his pocket, and dumped all the money into it. Swinging the sack over his shoulder, the judge walked
out of the bank, leaving the vault door open.
McCaughlin slowly rose to leave, but froze when the banker groaned again. What should I do? He wondered. If I stop to help him, I might get caught. But I can't run and leave him to die. He sighed deeply, and swung the bag of coins onto the counter. Ripping off his neckerchief, he knelt over the banker. Fresh blood coated the floor, and soaked the banker's tan coat. Quickly McCaughlin pulled off the banker's coat. He rocked back on his heels at the sight of the bullet wound. It had torn through the banker's upper left shoulder, and obviously had destroyed his collar bone.
There's no way I'm going to be able to take care of this. I'll have to get him to a doctor. McCaughlin decided. He jumped as a voice sounded from the doorway. “Father? Are you in here?” He whirled. There in the doorway stood a young girl, her long reddish hair glowing in the faint light. She saw him at almost the same instant, and she opened her mouth to speak, when her eyes flitted to the prone figure. A scream emerged from her parted lips, and she ran into the bank. She jumped on McCaughlin, punching, pommeling and scratching him. “You killed my father!” she screamed.
“No, wait! He's not dead!” McCaughlin bellowed. She stopped attacking him, and stared. “What?”
“He's not dead, and I didn't shoot him.” McCaughlin repeated. “Where's the doctor?” but she was no longer listening to him. She grabbed up the neckerchief which he had dropped, and began dabbing vainly at the wound. The banker groaned again, and the girl burst into tears. “Father!”
McCaughlin stood, and walked to the now open bank door. He palmed his revolver and fired three shots into the air. He watched as a light came on in the Sheriff's office, and seconds later a coated figure emerged. Another figure appeared at almost the same time from a small building opposite the street from the sheriff's office. They both came jogging down the street towards the bank. McCaughlin holstered his pistol and stood waiting. The sheriff stopped several paces away from McCaughlin, and peered suspiciously at him. “Whadja shoot yer gun fer?” he asked, shifting his shotgun.
“There's a man inside, and he's seriously injured.” McCaughlin replied. The sheriff nodded at the other figure, who darted inside. “What're you doin' here?” Asked the sheriff. McCaughlin stiffened.
“I was walking by and heard a groan. I just did what any man would do” He lied, crossing his fingers behind his back. The sheriff nodded. “What any man woulda done with all that money in front of him! You shot him!” He said, as he swung the shotgun up to aim at McCaughlin's chest. McCaughlin started to protest, but was cut short by a blow to the head with the butt of the shotgun. He slumped down, unconscious.
McCaughlin awoke to a searing headache. He stared up at a dull gray, stone ceiling, trying to figure out where he was. He remembered the scene in front of the bank, and the shotgun butt crashing into his head. He sat up slowly, wincing as his headache pounded with each heartbeat. Glancing around through squinted eyes, he saw that he resided in a prison cell. Thick iron bars, and gray stone surrounded him, walling him in. He lay back, and closed his eyes, trying to will himself back into oblivion of the pain, and the future.
A deep gravelly voice penetrated deep into his brain, causing him to wince with pain. “Hey! Wake up! It's time for your meal!” McCaughlin opened his eyes again, and slowly sat up. Now a man stood on the other side of the bars, holding a small wooden tray, on which rested a bowl, cup and wooden spoon.
McCaughlin started to rise, but was stopped by a tug on his wrist. He glanced down. A cuff was clamped around his wrist, the other end being chained to the wall. He sank back onto the bunk. The jailer chuckled gleefully, and fumbled with the lock. McCaughlin growled as his stomach began grinding in anticipation of food. The jailer chuckled gleefully again, and finally opened the cell door. He advanced slowly and placed the tray on the small table, barely within McCaughlin's reach. The jailer quickly backed to the door, and slammed it shut.
McCaughlin had just finished eating when he heard footsteps approaching his cell. He glanced up to see the sheriff and the banker's daughter. “Miss Becky, is this the man who shot your father?” the sheriff growled. Becky glanced at McCaughlin. “He was kneeling over my father. I don't know if he shot my fa-” she broke into tears.
McCaughlin cleared his throat. “How is he?” he asked.
“Shut up!” bellowed the sheriff, putting his arm around Becky's shoulders, and guiding her out of the prison. Becky glanced back at him once, her face hardening into hate. McCaughlin sighed, and lay back on the bunk. If only I hadn't tried to rob the bank. If only I hadn't stopped to help the banker. But I couldn't just leave him lying there. I may be a bank robber, but I still have a heart. If only- McCaughlin sat up as a thought struck him. “Sheriff!” He yelled, “The judge shot the banker, not me!”
A voice came sifting back into the cell “Shut up!” He sighed again, and lay back down.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, except a slight interruption for dinner. McCaughlin went to sleep in a state of depression. His dreams filled with the graphic images of the past 3 years. Bank robberies, stage hold-ups, his father shot by vigilantes, his house burned to ashes, his older sister kidnapped and killed. McCaughlin awoke near midnight, soaked with perspiration. But the dreams continued.
When morning finally came, McCaughlin was dead tired, having lost more sleep than he had gained. And his head pounded as much as ever. He groaned as the jailor made his merry entry. And growled viciously when the jailor accidentally dropped his keys.
The sheriff arrived in front of his cell at midday. “Mr.-” he paused, as he realized he'd never gotten his prisoner's name. “What's yer name?” He growled.
“McDonae” McCaughlin lied again.
“McDonae, yer charged with first degree murder. Ya will stand trial before Judge Harrison tomorrer. Ya have the right to remain silent. Anythin' ya say can and will be used against ya.” the sheriff whirled and marched away. Dead! First degree murder! McCaughlin groaned. Things kept going from bad to worse. He tried to doze the rest of the day away, but sleep refused to alleviate his burning eyes and searing headache. Late in the evening the sheriff again appeared, this time accompanied by a man in suit and tie, wearing a ridiculous top hat. “McDonae, this is your lawyer, Mr. Greene. Don't hurt him, as he's your only defense.” the sheriff chuckled at his pun. Mr. Greene also laughed. McCaughlin closed his eyes, and turned his face to the wall. The laughter stopped when a third voice sounded.
“Sheriff, may I see McDonae, alone?” McCaughlin whirled to see Becky standing outside the cell. The sheriff coughed and snorted. “Of course, just call if ya need anythin' Miss Becky.” the two men turned and sauntered away, still snickering.
Becky came close to the bars and lowered her voice. “Mr. McDonae, what were you doing in the bank? And did you shoot my father?”
“I did not shoot your father.” McCaughlin replied. “And my name is James McCaughlin, not McDonae.”
Becky's eyes opened wide “You're James McCaughlin? The bank robber? I always imagined he'd be seven feet tall and strong as an ox!” McCaughlin laughed. “I can't live up to the rumors anymore.”
Becky wasn't amused. “Why should I believe that you didn't shoot my father?” she asked.
“There is no way I can prove that I didn't shoot your father. But the only witness to that is the man who shot him, and stole the rest of the money from the bank.”
“Do you know who that man is?” asked Becky.
“Your father called him 'Judge'.” Becky's eyes widened at the name.
“Judge? Judge Harrison? But why would he shoot my father? They were the best of friends.” Her faced hardened in anger and hatred. “You! You did kill my father! I hate you! I wish you were dead!” She broke down into tears again. McCaughlin stood. “You must believe me. I didn't kill your father!” He said. But Becky whirled and ran from the prison.
McCaughlin fell back onto the bunk, and punched his pillow. Nobody believes me! But then, why should they? I've been lying so much, I hardly know the truth myself. Best of friends indeed! If only Becky knew that my father was killed by his best friend. But I can't tell her. Oh, why did I ever go along with Grouve? Why did I choose life over death? McCaughlin slowly drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.
A whisper woke him up in the early hours of the morning. “McCaughlin? Are you awake?” He turned, and saw Becky crouching at the cell door.
“Yes, I”m awake.” he whispered back.
“You were right, I sneaked into Judge Harrison's house tonight, and I found most of the money from the bank. I also found this note, and I thought you might want to see it.” she slipped her hand between the bars, a slip of paper in her fingers. McCaughlin crawled off the bed, and strained his hand towards the note. But the cuff held him back. He strained again, and his fingers just brushed against the paper. He sighed and returned to the bunk. “Just read it to me.” He whispered. She nodded, and twisted the paper, trying to catch enough of the moonlight filtering through the cell window to read it.
“'Judge, meet me at the bank after dark, and I will give you the money to keep quiet.' It's signed by my father. But what would Father have to hide?” She asked. McCaughlin shrugged. “I only heard your father ask the judge to wait while he got the money.” he replied. She began to say something, but was interrupted by the sheriff's voice “Miss Becky! What're ya doin'?”
“I... I'm trying to find out why McC-... McDonae killed my father.” she said. The sheriff laughed. “He killed yer father 'cause he wanted the money.” “Then why didn't you find any money on him?” asked Becky.
“He must have hidden it somewhere. Now, ya need to go home, and get some sleep. The trial is tomorrer.” Becky nodded, and with a glance at McCaughlin, she left.
McCaughlin lay back in the bunk and returned to sleep, his dreams filled with a certain face. He awoke to the jailor's cheery banter. McCaughlin smiled, “Say, old man, what's your name?” he asked, determined to be optimistic today.
“Name's Johnson, sonny. Now get some of this grub insideyour face. It'll be the last meal you eat. The Judge intends to hang you at sundown, and it'd be a waste to feed a doomed man.”
McCaughlin laughed. “I don't suppose I could convince you to take off this cuff. It's so hard to eat left-handed.”
Johnson chuckled and shook his head “Nope, sheriff's orders. He doesn't want his prisoner escaping.”
“I thought not.” sighed McCaughlin. Already the optimistic attitude was wearing thin.
He made as hearty of a meal as he could from cold oatmeal and water. After finishing his meal, he scrubbed at his hair with his fingers in an effort to tame the wild look. He rubbed a hand along the stubble on his chin. I probably look the part of a killer. He thought, And I'm only supposed to be a bank robber. Funny how your past can affect your future. If I hadn't robbed the bank I wouldn't be here now. But, what would I have been if I had never started robbing banks? A banker myself? The life of an outlaw sure isn't what it's rumored to be. Romantic outlaw? Ha!
The minutes slowly ticked by. Finally, he heard the sheriff's footsteps sounding down the corridor to his cell. “Mr. McDonae, yer wanted in court.” McCaughlin stood. “Fine, I'm ready, let's go”
The keys rattled in the lock, and the cell door swung open. “Johnson, go unlock his cuff.” said the sheriff, pointing his shotgun sqarely at McCaughlin's chest. “If ya make one false move, ya won't need to meet the hangman.” the sheriff growled, as Johnson unlocked McCaughlin's cuff. McCaughlin put his hands on his head, and followed Johnson out of the cell. The sheriff handed Johnson a pair of handcuffs. “Hook yerself up with the prisoner. If he escapes, it's yer neck that'll stretch.”
McCaughlin lowered his arm so Johnson could carry out his orders.
“Now! March!” Growled the sheriff. McCaughlin marched. As they stepped into the courtroom, Becky met them. She furtively slipped a note into McCaughlin's hand, and then hurried away. McCaughlin smiled, and clasped his fist around the note. He'd read it later, when no-one was looking.
The sheriff led the way to the prisoner's bar, where he left Johnson to guard McCaughlin. McCaughlin sat, and then secretly opened the note.
Sheriff Tobold and Judge Harrison were both involved in
blackmailing my father about a political refugee that he
had helped to escape from England. I sent a message to
Captain Georges of the 3rd Cavalry, telling him what is
happening. He should arrive before sunset.
McCaughlin glanced up and scanned the room. Becky sat on the back bench, near the door. He caught her eye, and smiled. She smiled back briefly, and turned her attention back to the judge. The trial proceeded swiftly, as there were no witnesses. In the end however, Judge Harrison called on McCaughlin to rise.
“McCaughlin, I hereby find you guilty of premeditated murder, and I sentence you to be hung by the neck until dead. This sentence will be carried out within the hour. Case adjourned.” The gavel slapped on the desk as McCaughlin sent a shocked glance at Becky. The cavalry will be too late to save me. He thought. She knew it too, as he could see by her shocked expression.
McCaughlin was hauled outside, and dragged up the steps of the gallows, which had been hurriedly assembled in front of the courthouse. The noose was dropped around his neck, and drawn snug. Johnson stood in front of him. “Does the convicted have any final words?” he asked.
McCaughlin nodded. “Yes, I did not kill the banker. It was Judge Har-” The Sheriff threw the trip-lever, and McCaughlin's body dangled from the rope, his neck broken by the noose..
“NO!!” screamed Becky, throwing herself at the sheriff. “He was innocent! You murderer! You and Judge Harrison killed my father!”
The sheriff slapped her across the mouth, sending her to the ground, her lips bloodied.
“Shut up! I got yer father's killer!” He smirked. Becky withdrew a pistol from her coat pocket. “You won't live to spend any of the bank's money!” She said, squeezing the trigger. There was a flash, and a slight pop. The sheriff grabbed his chest, blood flowing between his fingers. “Ya shot me!” he gasped, and keeled over.
Moments later, Judge Harrison emerged from the courthouse, pistol in one hand, and saddlebags in the other.
“Drop that pistol, Becky!” he ordered. Johnson grabbed for his own pistol, but was stopped by a bullet to the heart, falling over the edge of the gallows to land with a thump near Becky. Tears streaming down her cheeks, Becky raised her pistol, and emptied its load at Judge Harrison before he could swing his pistol back at her. Two of the shots connected, causing Judge Harrison to fall to his knees, and slump backwards, his head banging soundly against the door jam.
Becky dropped her pistol, and sank to the ground. Emotionally spent, she slipped into unconsciousness. The small crowd of townspeople who had turned out for the hanging hurried home, leaving the doctor kneeling over Becky's prone figure.
When Captain Georges rode into town with a detachment of cavalry, there was nothing to do except bury the dead, and initiate a new sheriff. Before he left however, he stepped into the Doctor's house to see Becky.
“Miss Colson, I'm sorry this had to happen. If it hadn't been for McCaughlin, we never would have found out about Judge Harrison and Sheriff Tobold.” Becky smiled wanly, her pale face livening up for a second. Georges stood in silence for a minute.
“What will you do now?” he asked gently.
“I'm giving everyone back whatever money they deposited in the bank, and whatever is left will pay for a trip to England. I'm going to find out more about that political refugee my father helped.”
Georges smiled. “Maybe this letter will save you the trip, it was mailed nearly eighteen years ago, but I just received it yesterday.” He said. She grabbed the yellowed letter from his hand, and unfolded it with trembling fingers.
Dated Apr. 3 1868, To the current Commander at Fort Wallape,
Can you inform me as to the whereabouts of a man named Charles Colson?
Several years ago, I got into serious trouble with the English
government, and if it hadn't been for Mr. Colson, I would be cooling
my heels in London Tower at this moment. With Colson's help, my dear
wife, Laura, my two children, Mary and James, and I managed to sail for
New York. Ever since arriving in the States with my family, I've tried to find
him, and repay him for his kindness. But so far I have only been able to
ascertain that he had moved out west.
Your humble servant,