Trace Cordell stared ahead stoically, determined to die better than he’d lived.
The ruddy-faced deputy serving as hangman set the noose around his neck. Trace wove to keep his balance, his hands tied tightly behind his back. His vision blurred as he looked out at the crowd of cattlemen, hired hands, and local citizens gathered around the gallows built special in the middle of the street for his hanging. The prickly hemp of the new rope burned his skin and he could smell his own fear.
“Ex-Sheriff Cordell, do you have any last words you’d like to say,” Judge Rigby drawled from his front row seat at the base of the gallows. The boys had brought out a table and chair from the saloon for the monkey-faced jurist to sit in comfort while he witnessed the hanging, a whiskey bottle in his right hand, a fat, half-smoked cigar in his left.
Trace shook his head. He couldn’t answer. His throat was dry and there was a buzzing in his head right behind his eyes from a night of hard drinking.
Besides, what could he say he hadn’t already in the kangaroo court they’d held minutes ago? He’d told the truth. He’d not remembered killing the man. That sometimes, lately, drink made him forget and lose time? Half the men in the crowd had the same problem, including the judge. The last thing Trace had remembered from the night before was the joy of being dealt a winning poker hand.
He woke to his own trial for murder.
“You’ve got nothing to say for your last words?” Rigby repeated as if he couldn’t fathom such a thing. He pushed his bowler hat back from his forehead and looked over his shoulder at the crowd. “Doesn’t seem right a man should pass from this life to the next without last words.”
“How ’bout good-bye?” a cowpoke shouted.
“And good riddance?” another chimed in. The others laughed.
Rigby banged his bottle on the table for order. “We’ll have some respect here. A man is about to die. And if he don’t have anything to say, then as a fellow lawman, I think I will speak for him.”
His audience groaned. Judge Rigby was a man who liked to hear himself talk. Well, he could talk to Doomsday as far as Trace was concerned, anything to put off the inevitable.
Carefully, the stubby judge placed the butt end of his cigar on the edge of the table and stepped up on the chair so he could best address the crowd. More than a bit tipsy himself, he had to hold the bottle out for balance. He removed his hat. The few strands of reddish hair on his bald pate stood straight up in the air like tiny flagpoles.
“Trace Cordell was at one time a good lawman. One of the best. Fierce and proud. We’ve all heard tales of him. But those who live by the sword will die by it and you other fellows out there better look at this man and heed the warning in your own lives.” He nodded toward the broken door and glass windows of Birdie’s Emporium, a saloon for the hard-bitten. “Justice is the rule of law, even for ex-lawmen and we don’t ignore killing . . .” He then went off into a lecture about what makes a man a man in the West.
Trace stopped listening. Instead, he shifted his focus to the blueness of the sky that seemed to stretch out forever. The dry, ever present Kansas wind swirled around him, carrying with it pieces of dust and grit and the hint of summer heat.
He didn’t want to die like this with his feet dancing on air and everyone watching. He’d seen too many men hanged not to know the indignities of this death.
And yet, he’d killed a man.
It wasn’t as if he’d not killed before. As sheriff back in Loveless, he’d sent more than a dozen men to meet their Maker. But he could remember the look in their eyes, the determination in their faces. However, this man–? No face formed in Trace’s mind. His head throbbed harder the more he tried to remember. Whatever had happened was lost to him.
He wasn’t a praying man, but a prayer formed in his mind, Dear God, please, not like this.
There was no answer. No clap of thunder. No giant hand coming down from the sky to save his unworthy soul.
He was going to hang.
Rigby wound up his eulogy/lecture by placing his hat on his head with a flourish and jumping down from the chair. He picked up his cigar butt, clamped it between his teeth and said, “Let’s get on with it.”
The crowd cheered.
Rigby’s henchman tightened the noose around Trace’s neck.
“Won’t be long now, Cordell.” He gave Trace a friendly pat on the back and went down the steps to yank down the trap door beneath Trace’s feet on command. Two other fellows stood ready and armed with shotguns in case Trace attempted to escape.
A preacher man stepped forward, opened his Bible, and began to recite some last words.
Trace saw some men remove their hats out of respect for the Good Book while others stepped forward for a better view of his death. He deliberately kept his mind blank. The pounding in his head increased.
Then, from the far corner of the crowd, he noticed movement. A woman in straw bonnet worked her way forward, elbowing this man and that out of her way. She appeared anxious to get to the front row for his hanging.
The preacher finished. Rigby stood, his expression solemn. He raised his hand. “Now, with the power inves-
The bonneted woman shouted, “Wait! Don’t hang him! I saw what happened. Trace Cordell is innocent. He didn’t shoot anyone.” There was a hint of Irish in her voice, a voice Trace instantly recognized and he groaned aloud.
If his life was in her hands, he might as well step off the platform and hang himself.
She and her father had traveled Texas peddling rotgut in medicine bottles with enough charm and false promises to sweet talk a month’s wages out of a saint. Trace had had to personally escort them out of Loveless. Unfortunately, he hadn’t stopped them before they’d bled everyone dry and the reason for his carelessness was he’d fallen in love with her. Head over heels. His meeting her was the beginning of the end of his career as sheriff of Loveless.
Stood to reason he’d see her again with a noose around his neck.
Not that she didn’t make a credible impression on his behalf. She was dressed for church, her straw bonnet trimmed in yellow ribbons and the blue of her sprigged calico dress the perfect match for her catlike eyes. Her hair was the vibrant strawberry blonde of the Irish and the few artful curls around her face caught and held the sunlight.
She even wore gloves. White leather ones. Obviously the year and a half since Trace had last seen her had been prosperous ones for Flanna.
He scanned the crowd searching for her rogue of a father. The over protective Rory Kennedy was never far from his daughter. He wondered what game the old scoundrel was playing now?
Like so many others before him, Rigby fawned over Flanna’s beauty. He pulled his hat off his head and slicked by his few hairs. A half dozen love-struck cowpokes did the same. “Miss Kennedy, we didn’t know you were in town for the day.”
Trace almost barked out in surprised laughter at the respect in the judge’s voice. Obviously he didn’t know Flanna well.
“I know who shot that man and it wasn’t Sheriff Cordell,” she said to Rigby in a breathless voice.
“Ex-sheriff,” Rigby corrected with mild distraction, then said, “We’ve already had the trial.”
“But you’ve had no justice.”
The judge frowned. The crowd inched closer to hear better. Trace was listening especially closely, stunned by the revelation that he may not have committed the murder.
“How do you know who shot William Bates?” Rigby asked suspiciously.
“I was there at Birdies,” she confessed.
Now the idea of Flanna Kennedy patronizing a saloon did not surprise Trace at all . . . but apparently it did the good folks of Harwood. They acted like she was all milk and honey and not the stone-cold thief he knew.
A cowboy named Curly who had testified to the shooting murmured to his companions, “I would ‘ave noticed her if she’d been here. Wouldn’t ‘ave been able to take my eyes off her.” The others agreed.
“What were you doing there?” Rigby asked Flanna with interest. He dropped his cigar butt to the ground and pulled a fresh one from his suit coat. “Birdie’s isn’t the sort of place for a fine young woman like yourself.”
Trace almost choked. Rigby didn’t know Flanna at all.
“I came looking for Sheriff Cordell,” she said “I’d heard he was in town and we had some, um, business to attend between us. I saw everything that happened. I was standing in the backroom trying to manage a way of catching Mr. Cordell’s attention without drawing notice to myself when the fight over a hand of cards broke out.”
Rigby clamped the unlit cigar in his mouth, interested. “Go on.”
Miss Kennedy continued, “The gentlemen who was killed–”
“Bates,” the judge supplied.
“Yes, Mr. Bates. He pushed over the card table and accused Mr. Cordell of cheating, but before Mr. Cordell could speak, that gentleman with curly hair–”
“Curly?” Rigby asked. The cowhand of the same name stood close to the judge’s elbow, a scowl on his face.
Flanna nodded. “Curly broke a chair over Mr. Cordell’s head and knocked him out cold.”
“Me?” Curly protested.
No wonder Trace’s head hurt so bad.
“So if Cordell didn’t shoot him, who did?” Rigby asked.
“Curly.” She pointed a gloved finger right at him. “When Mr. Cordell went down, everyone started fighting save for Bates and Curly. Bates hurriedly grabbed up the money off the floor while Curly picked up Mr. Cordell’s famous pearl handled colts. I thought it best to hide. No sense advertising my presence what with a group of wild men going at it. They were all acting like barbarians.”
Several people nodded agreement.
“Curly and Bates ran for the back door where I was hiding,” Flanna continued. “There they stopped and Curly demanded the money. Bates refused. They had angry words and Curly shot him. Bang! Just like that.”
The accused cowhand doubled his fist. “I never did no such thing. Bill and I rode the trail together.”
“But you never liked each other,” a grizzled cowpoke pointed out.
“Yup, there was bad blood between them,” said another.
“I liked him well enough,” Curly shot back.
“Oh, yes,” Flanna agreed. “You liked him to take the money. Then you went back into the saloon, and put the gun close to Mr. Cordell to make it look like his doing. I saw it all, you shot poor Mr. Bates right in the back.”
During Trace’s trial it was the shot in the back that had so many folks riled up. Flanna’s comment spurred their sense of injustice.
For a moment, Curly appeared ready to argue-and then, he bolted for freedom, an action more telling than any admission of guilt. He was stopped by his compatriots before he’d taken three steps.
Rigby shouted for order. Curly shoved his way to toward the judge. “I had to shoot him,” he told everyone. “He was stealing our money. Just like she said.”
“And what were you doing?” someone challenged.
“I bet the money is in his saddlebag,” another answered. “He told me he was leaving town after he saw Cordell hang.”
“Yeah, with our money!”
The call went out for someone to check Curly’s horse and a party of men charged off to do exactly that.
Curly fell to his knees, shaking. He turned to the judge. “I didn’t mean to shoot him. Just made me so mad he’d start a fight and then would try and steal it all. He was selfish that way.”
Rigby answered by biting off the tip of the cigar and spitting it down at Curly. “You can tell me all about it later when I re-convene my court. Keep an eye on him, boys. I’ll deal with him in a moment.” He looked up at Trace. “Looks like what they say about you having nine lives is true, Cordell. Thanks to Miss Kennedy, you are going to walk. It’s too bad. I was looking forward to hanging you.”
“Maybe some other day,” Trace said. And if he had his way, never. He couldn’t wait to kick the dust of Harwood from his heels-especially now he knew Flanna was here. She may have saved his life, but he knew her too well. He wanted no part of Rory’s schemes. The cost of the last one had been too high. “Someone get up here and cut my hands loose.”
Rigby signaled his deputy to take care of the matter. The portly man climbed the stairs with obvious disappointment but did what he was told, slicing the ropes with a knife.
Meanwhile Rigby turned his full flirtatious attention on Flanna. “So, tell me, Miss Kennedy, why were you searching for Cordell last night?”
Yes, why was she? Trace wanted to pretend he wasn’t interested in the answer, but he was. He rubbed numb wrists, the pain of what felt like a thousand needles shot through them as his blood started circulating again. He couldn’t even lift the noose from his neck.
She hedged, apparently at a loss for words. “Why I was looking for him?” she repeated. Trace could see the wheels in her wily brain churning, and knew whatever she was about to say would be a lie. She’d never learn. She and her father were the devil’s own playmates.
But even he, who knew her so well, was unprepared for what popped from her mouth.
“Oh, I was looking for him . . . because, he’s, um, he’s me husband. Yes. He ran out on me almost two years ago and I’ve come to fetch him back.”
Trace surged forward. “What a load of bull–!” His words were cut off as the noose still around his neck pressed his windpipe.