Chapter 52 Snap, Crackle, Pop
Bret brought his horse to a skidding stop at the foot of the newly erected gallows. He slid out of the saddle and had to peel Pappy off of him. He ran up the bottom three steps of the gallows and hugged his brother, who was still hand cuffed behind his back. Then he continued up the steps until he reached Judge Kincaid.
"Your Honor, my Cousin Beau is escorting a wagon containing Sheriff McNally of Shanksville and Jack Sanborn. They'll be here within the hour. Rusty Meyers and Pete Sanborn died yesterday; Pete got himself killed in a gunfight. Jack was shot by Meyers and wounded; Sheriff McNally killed Meyers."
"While that's all very interesting, Mr. Maverick, what does it prove?" Albie Grayson was not letting his conviction go without a fight.
"Jack Sanborn spilled the whole story before he was shot. Sheriff McNally heard it all. Meyers is the one who killed Edgar Pike, not my brother."
Judge Kincaid looked at Bret carefully. "And Sanborn is ready to testify to that?"
"Yes, Your Honor, he is. And Sheriff McNally witnessed it all. That's why they're on their way here."
The judge walked over to the top of the stairs and looked down at Bowman and the prisoner. "Sheriff, take Mr. Maverick back to the jail while we get this all settled. And take those handcuffs off him. The hanging is hereby cancelled."
Sheriff Bowman did as he was told without protest. Bret came back down the steps and hugged Bart again. This time the hug was reciprocated. Both wore big smiles on their faces. Bart leaned in to Bret's ear and whispered, "You could have gotten here a few minutes sooner."
Bret's answer - "I did my best, Brother Bart, I did my best" was heard only by his brother. Before anything else could be said or done Bowman had marched Bart back to the jail, at least this time without the handcuffs. Bret and Pappy embraced, and Harry ran off to the saloon to tell Georgia and Jody the news. For once the crowd was pleased to have missed out on the spectacle.
Slowly everyone disbursed; all of the men assembled on the gallows platform descended, some to celebrate, others to ponder the next steps to be taken in the legal process. Bret and Pappy returned to the jail to claim their prize – the soon to be released youngest Maverick. By the time they got there Jody and Georgia had beaten them to it and there was another round of hugs and kisses. Mort saw no sense in keeping Bart in a cell; it was obvious the sheriff had been wrong and he was willing to admit it.
A little over an hour later the caravan from Shanksville arrived. Jack Sanborn told the whole story to Judge Kincaid, Albie Grayson and Sheriff Bowman. Sheriff McNally verified everything and Bart Maverick was officially released from custody, cleared of all charges. Georgia, Jody and Beau planned a big celebration at the saloon for nine o'clock that night. Bart went back to the hotel with Pappy and got a new room; Alvin went to the saloon to fetch Bart's personal possessions. Once he returned them to their rightful owner each went their separate ways; Pappy claimed Bret's old room as his own, Bret stayed on in Beau's and Beau moved his belongings to one of the offices at 'The Three Mavericks.' At least until he and Georgia had a chance to talk. Everyone was so overjoyed at the unforeseen chain of events that no one minded when Bart pleaded for some much needed time to rest and recuperate. It was later at the hotel that Jody finally got a chance to see her newly exonerated 'brother' for a private conversation. She knocked softly at the door to his new room and heard him call, "Jody, is that you?"
"Yes sir, it certainly is. May I come in?" She was bouncing from foot to foot in the hallway, she was so excited.
The door opened and he was standing there, his arms outstretched. "Faint away, my lady."
She feigned another collapse and he caught her, both of them laughing so hard that he almost dropped her. He stood her back up and closed the door behind her as she entered, a definite step up from his original room. This one was more like a suite, with a separate parlor area. Jody looked around and remarked, "Must be nice to have such a fancy room." They laughed again and sat down.
"I think the hotel felt bad for me. Upscale room at no extra charge. All I had to do was almost get hung."
She stopped laughing when he said that. "That was much too close, Bartley. I was sure I'd lost you."
"Well, you didn't," he replied. "Thank God Bret and Beau did what they set out to do. Some relatives, huh? I suppose I owe them now?"
"Yes, you do. I owe them, too. Who would have walked me down the aisle?"
"Oh, a certain lad with an accent comes to mind." He paused and got serious. "Beau and your mother? Anything happening there?"
Jody looked out the window, which had a breathtaking view of the snowcapped mountains. "I don't know. He told me he was going to marry her but I don't think he's asked her yet."
"Would she marry him?" Bart hesitated to ask but if anybody knew what Georgia was thinking it was her daughter.
"I don't know. I know she loves him, but beyond that . . . . " Several minutes passed as they sat together, pleased that there were no bars between them. Finally Bart had something he wanted her to know.
"Change of subject. I want you to take my share of the saloon."
"But you're alive," she protested.
"That's just the point. I'm alive, Jody. It's going to take me a while to put all this behind me. I need to be free to heal at my own pace, not because I've got obligations to keep."
She frowned as she realized what he was saying. "You're going to leave, aren't you?"
"In a while, yes. I wrote to a friend of mine and I'm going to spend some time with her while I get my strength back. She's been after me to come visit and I think it's a good idea."
"Someone I've known for a long time. She's in New Mexico. She's the cousin of someone . . . . I knew very well."
"Are you ever coming back?"
"What kind of a question is that? Of course I'm coming back. As soon as you find a nice young man and settle down."
"Hmpf. I don't want a 'nice young man.' I want somebody like you."
Bart burst out laughing again and shook his head. "Me? You don't want somebody like me! A drifter, a gambler, a con man with no roots. Somebody that blows wherever the wind takes him! Somebody that gets convicted for something he didn't do and almost dies for it? God forbid, you need someone who puts you first, someone that'll help you raise those babies, someone that'll always be there for you. Not like me."
No sense arguing with him; he had his mind made up. "I'll miss you."
"I know you will, darlin', but it's best I go. I need to be someplace that's warm and peaceful. Someplace I can just sit under a shady tree and get fat. Can't see doin' that around here."
"How long? Before you go, I mean?"
"Oh, a week or two. Before the first big snowstorm closes the trails. Once Beau and Georgia have made plans. And one more thing – when Bret's ready to go. He's going with me to New Mexico. Wants to make sure I get there with no problems. I told him I'd let him play chaperone for me just to keep him busy. Got to keep those Maverick boys out of trouble, you know."
Jody rose from her seat; she walked over to Bart and kissed him on the cheek the way she'd wanted to all those weeks in jail and hadn't been able to. "I'm going home to get ready for the party tonight. You take a nap, I'm sure you could use one."
He stood for her and she pushed him back down. "Stay there; I know where the door is."
She walked to the door, gave him one of her little waves, and was gone. He sat there for a few minutes, relaxed and comfortable, and quickly fell asleep. For a few minutes he napped peacefully, then a new version of his nightmare appeared. He was back on the third step of the gallows this morning, but this time there was no Bret; no Beau to save him. Georgia and Jody were there and watched him slowly climb the steps to the top. Once there the sheriff put the noose around his neck and tightened it. Then Mort reached for the trap door lever and . . . . he felt the floor give way under him and the rope tightened . . . . and just as he felt his neck snap he woke up and fell to his knees on the floor. And he started to shake, this time from the realization of how close he'd come to dying . . . . . And finally he could contain the feelings no longer – panic, fear, horror, shame; he was overwhelmed by emotion. A strangled cry rose in his throat and he couldn't hold it back – and when it burst out of him it was followed by earth shattering sobs. The months of pain and exhaustion shook him to his very soul. And, like his brother before him, he cried until there were no more tears.