The Tender Murderer

by Julia Verinder

Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008

The title comes from Robert Browning:

Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things, the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist, demirep that loves and saves her soul in new French books.

Folding early for the fifth successive time, Ezra knew the sallow man was cheating but had still failed to catch him doing it. Chris and Nathan exchanged wry smiles. They had no objection to their friend getting a taste of his own medicine for once. The whole affair was good-natured. The four had played on several occasions since the young Englishman's arrival with his sister on the previous week's stagecoach and the experienced gamblers had gleaned considerable pleasure from trying to spot each other's tricks.

Ezra dealt another hand but their game was interrupted by a bout of coughing from his rival. The man surreptitiously wiped his mouth with a fresh handkerchief. Unable to bring his breathing back under control, he excused himself and headed outside for some fresh air. Ezra and Chris looked at Nathan. All had seen the blood that the man had tried to conceal when he folded his handkerchief.

'Don't reckon he's got too long to go,' the negro commented.

Ezra shook his head sympathetically. He liked their new adversary and consumption wasn't a death he'd wish on anyone.

Once Bartholomew Johnson reached the street, he managed to recover his composure. The cool night air was a lot kinder on his lungs than the smoky atmosphere of the saloon. He looked around and, spotting his sister out for an evening stroll, went over to join her.

She reached fondly for his hand. 'All right, Tolly?'

'Not so good, Fran.' His voice was a hoarse wheeze.

'You really shouldn't spend so much time in there,' she chided him gently, nodding towards the saloon.

He squeezed her hand. 'It's not going to make much difference now, is it? I do wish you'd go home, or at least back to the East Coast. I can't bear to think of you out here alone, after I'm gone.'

'And I can't bear to think of you out here alone, waiting for the end. So there we are.'

It was a conversation they'd had before. She slipped her arm through his and they turned back towards the hotel. In the shadows on the sidewalk, a man leaned against the wall of the saloon. He was not deliberately eavesdropping but he was curious.

Bartholomew took a deep and shuddering breath. 'I don't know that I want to wait this out. There's not much left for a man when he can't even finish a game of cards.'

'Don't say that.'

He smiled and patted her hand. He knew how she felt about suicide and always relented without pushing the point but the time was coming when he might have to assert his right to make the decision for himself.


After that night, Bartholomew managed two fairly active weeks before suffering a relapse. Frances nursed him constantly in his hotel room, asking no one for help. She watched as he faded from sallow to pallid. When he first became bedridden, he asked her several times for the gun they carried as protection when traveling. She refused to give it to him and hid it in her own luggage, though she doubted he could have crossed the room to take it from the dresser. She was relieved when he stopped asking but she saw in his eyes that he never stopped longing for an end to the pain. As he deteriorated, he communicated less. All she could do was watch him suffer. She expected each day that dawned to bring the end but at dusk his spirit still lingered.

A week after he had taken to his bed, she sat with him in the early afternoon. She watched as even the lightest of breaths rattled through his lungs. Every few minutes, the coughing returned and she wiped blood from his lips. After an hour, she could bear it no more. She fetched the gun, returned to her seat and took his hand in hers. He opened his eyes, looked at the weapon, gave a shadow of a smile, then closed his eyes. She placed the barrel against his chest and pulled the trigger.

There were no horrible death throes. His spirit departed as soon as the bullet hit home. His face relaxed and the pain lines faded before her eyes. She dropped the gun on the bed but made no other move. She was still sitting there, holding the dead man's hand, when the hotelier rapped on the door. When there was no response to his second knock, he opened the door and gasped at what he saw. With no formal representatives of either the legal or medical professions in Four Corners, he headed for the saloon to find the men on whom the town relied for solutions to all its problems. Chris and Nathan followed him back to the room.

There was little either of them could do. Nathan confirmed that Bartholomew Johnson was without a doubt dead. Chris could see for himself what had happened but could get neither confirmation nor denial from the young woman, who stared at the body without moving a muscle. She seemed unable to act under her own volition and did not resist when Nathan took her through to her own room and settled her on the bed.

Chris went to see Mary Travis at the newspaper office. He explained what had happened.

'Reckon we need the Judge,' he told her.

'I'll wire his office. I believe he was due in Landon so he may not be far away.'

Chris headed for the saloon, finding his six friends around a table speculating about the shooting.

'Shouldn't we lock her up, Chris?' JD asked.

The older man gave a grim smile to the youngster. 'Don't reckon she's gonna shoot anyone else. She's got troubles enough without being thrown in jail.'

'How do you think the Judge will view it?' Ezra asked him.

Chris chewed on his lip. 'Not sure the law takes account of how long or how good a man's life'll be. Probably still murder.'

'He surely can't hang her?' Nathan said. He had left a maid sitting with Frances while he came to find out what they intended to do about her. 'Can't see Johnson could have lasted more'an a few days.'

'I wonder why she intervened,' Ezra said. 'It must have been going on a long time. Why now?'

Vin spoke for the first time. 'Don't reckon she could stand to watch no more.'


Judge Travis arrived two days later. He began by inspecting the scene of the shooting and the body of the deceased. He saw immediately that Johnson had been in a bad way before ever he encountered a bullet. Next he asked to speak with the dead man's sister. Chris took her to the Judge's room, sat her down and then leaned against the wall in the corner.

Travis felt nothing but pity for Frances. She was a pretty young thing, face a perfect heart-shape, eyes a startling shade of cornflower and hair the deep gold of ripe corn. Now, however, she looked drawn and her eyes lacked the slightest spark of animation.

'Can you tell me what happened?' he asked her gently.

'I shot him. Now I must pay.'

Over the next half an hour, all his questions met with variations on the same theme. Her burden of guilt at what she had done was too heavy for her to offer any defense. She expected to hang and, by damning herself, gave him little scope for maneuver. He took Chris to one side.

'I need to look into this, see what the precedents are. I think there'll have to be a formal trial. I feel sorry for her, and I can't see she's a threat to anyone else, but I doubt that'll count for much under the law. There are plenty of people who'd be happy to turn this into an issue given half a chance.'

Chris nodded. 'I figured that's how things stood.'

The Judge's words proved prophetic. His inquiries to the State authorities triggered a surge of interest and soon Four Corners was swamped with busybodies and newshounds. When Travis saw the man whom the State had sent to prosecute, he knew which way the case was headed. Joel Linton was a zealot, committed to the law as a tool for enforcing his own brand of religion. He would do everything in his power to see Frances Johnson hang.

The Judge decided to pay another call on the defendant. Although she had not been jailed, she was now under guard in her hotel room. JD and Nathan were playing cards outside her door. The security measures were partly to pacify the prosecution but more to protect her from the invading hordes. She was now more communicative, though she still saw the case in the same simple terms: she had committed a crime for which she must pay. To the Judge's relief, she agreed to retain the defense counsel he recommended, which had been his main purpose in seeing her. The man was an old friend, one of the few in the territory able to handle Linton's tactics.

As the Judge stood to leave, Frances stopped him to ask, 'May I see Josiah?'

'I don't see why not. I'll ask him to come over.'

Judge Travis found the former preacher in his church, repairing a broken chair. He passed on the young woman's request and Josiah set out immediately. Frances smiled when she saw him, thanked him for coming and invited him in. She asked if he was able to take confession. He explained that he was not a serving minister or a Roman Catholic.

'But you have faith?'

He nodded.

'Then I am sure God will accept your intercession on my behalf.'

Touched by her faith, he sat to hear her sins.

'Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been a month since my last confession. I have been guilty of envy on several occasions. I have also had impure thoughts about a man in this town. These are the sins of my heart but I have committed a much graver sin, the sin of murder, with nothing but love in my heart. Day after day, I asked the Lord to end dear Tolly's suffering. Now I ask forgiveness for interfering with His will.'

Josiah thought on that. 'Jesus gave his life that we might live. His blood will wash away the sins of the world.'

'Thou shalt not kill,' she reminded him.

'Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me,' Josiah countered. 'Ask him back and he will come.'

She nodded. 'I have. But I still feel so guilty.'

'Then you have your penance. You need no absolution from me.'

'Are you so sure there can be forgiveness for one who has killed a brother?'

'Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his brother. You expect to hang for your crime, don't you? Haven't you laid down your life, and put your soul at risk, for your brother?'

A tear fell to her cheek. 'I loved him so. I couldn't bear to watch him suffer any longer.'

'God knows your heart. How could he not forgive you? For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.'

Josiah left her feeling a little brighter. She thanked him warmly for his comforting words.


The defense counsel arrived the following day. Warren Parsons was a small, round man with a jovial air. Only the keen gray eyes behind his wire-framed spectacles betrayed the sharpness of the mind under the amiable exterior. He took his work seriously, interviewing everyone in town who had ever spoken to his client. He spoke to her at length and then spent some time in the telegraph office, sending wires here and there to confirm her story and find out more about the precedents relating to his case. He supervised her deposition to the prosecutor, advising her to remain silent on several issues. It was a week before he announced he was ready to proceed. Judge Travis set the trial to start at ten on the following Monday, with the Grain Exchange as his courtroom.

The building was packed by the time Parsons ushered Frances to her seat. The Judge took his position and brought the court into session. He went through the formalities, instructing both counsel and jury, reading out the charge against the defendant and inviting brief opening arguments.

Linton stood, made a show of inspecting the defendant and then addressed himself exclusively to the jury.

'As you have heard, this woman stands accused of shooting her brother. The defense does not deny that she did this. Instead, my colleague will be offering various reasons why you should allow his client to go free. I ask only that you remember, in this territory, the deliberate taking of life is murder. This woman deliberately took life and she must answer for her crime under the laws of both God and man.'

The prosecutor held his pose a moment longer for emphasis, then returned to his seat. Parsons waited for perhaps half a minute before rising, giving the jury time to turn its attention to him and prepare to hear what he had to say. His approach was less theatrical than Linton's, standing closer to them and taking a more conversational tone that invited them into a relationship with him.

'My colleague is right when he tells you that we do not contest the basic facts of the case. Miss Johnson shot her brother as alleged and has never disputed that fact. She is nothing if not honest. However, we will show that the taking of life was never her motivation and that her action therefore cannot rightly be called murder. I ask you to think of justice as well as the law when you consider the facts in this unusual case.'

He returned to his seat and the Judge indicated that the prosecution should begin its case. Although the basic sequence of events was not in dispute, Linton called the hotelier, Joe Danson, to the lectern and established in minute detail what had happened on the day of the shooting. He then moved on to the man's impressions of the couple.

'Were you aware that Mr Johnson was unwell?'

'Of course. The coughs were so bad sometimes he could hardly draw breath. In the week before… he died, he hadn't left his room.'

'Miss Johnson nursed him?'




She never called a doctor?'

'We don't have a doctor as such in town.'

'I understand a Mr… Jackson fills that role.'

'Nathan takes out bullets and sets bones. He'd be the first to say he ain't a doctor.'

'But Miss Johnson never even asked to see him?'

'I wouldn't know about that.'

'But you never saw him attend the deceased?'


When the prosecution had finished with its witness, the Judge invited the defense to cross-examine. Parsons shook his head. The hotelier left the stand and Linton called Nathan to the stand.

'We have heard that you provide some medical services in this town, Mr Jackson. Is that correct?'

'Yes, but only what Joe said.'

'Were you ever asked to examine the deceased?'

'No, but…'

'Please confine yourself to answering my questions, Mr Jackson. So, during the last month of his life, this terminally ill man saw no doctor, had no treatment and was nursed only by his sister, the person who subsequently killed him for reasons of her own. We have no solid evidence of the state of his health, only what she chooses to tell us. Is that correct?'

'But I didn't need to examine him to see what the problem was. We all knew…'

The prosecutor cut him off firmly, 'Just answer the question please.'

Nathan chewed his lip. 'I guess not. No.'

'I believe you played poker with the deceased on a number of occasions. Did he ever discuss his health or express a desire for his life to be ended prematurely?'

Nathan snorted. 'Oh, yeah. He just slipped it in between hands, casual like.'

There were grins among the spectators. Travis banged his gavel. 'Mr Jackson, please remember you are in a court of law and treat the prosecution's questions with respect, whatever your personal opinion of them.'

Linton was visibly irritated by Nathan's response and took a moment to collect himself. 'The point I wish to establish is that Miss Johnson took this decision herself. She was not acting on her brother's instructions. Do you have any information to the contrary?'

'No. No, I don't,' the witness admitted.

'No more questions.'

Again, the Judge invited defense to cross-examine. Again, Parsons declined.

Linton called Josiah to the stand next.

'I believe this town has no priest as well as no doctor but that you serve unofficially in this capacity. Is that correct?'

'I help out as I can.'

'Did you take confession from Miss Johnson soon after her brother's death?'


'But you are not an ordained Roman Catholic priest, are you?'

Josiah held his gaze. 'No.'

'So that information is not protected by the oath of the confessional, is it?'

Josiah gave no answer.

'Is it?'

'Maybe not officially but it was given on the same understanding. I couldn't break that confidence.'

'It would be contempt for you to withhold such information from this court.' He turned to the Judge. 'Would it not?'

Judge Travis looked uncomfortable and pondered the issue. The defendant leaned over to her counsel and whispered something. Parsons stood.

'If it please the court, my client has no wish to put Mr Sanchez in a difficult position. She releases him from any obligation he may feel.'

'Well, Mr Sanchez?'

After a long pause, Josiah reluctantly summarized her confession. 'She told me that she had killed her brother but that there was nothing but love in her heart when she did it. That she had repeatedly asked God to end his suffering and she now sought forgiveness for interfering with His will. She told me that she felt guilty and asked if I thought there could be forgiveness for killing a brother.'

'What did you tell her?'

'That the blood of Jesus will wash away the sins of the world. That God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. That Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his brother". She expects to hang for her crime so she has laid down her life, and put her soul at risk, for her brother.'

'That seems a very flexible interpretation of the sixth commandment. But then you have killed many times yourself, have you not, Mr Sanchez?'

'I don't see the relevance of the state of my soul.'

'What other sins did Miss Johnson confess?'

'Nothing relevant to this case.'

'That is not for you to judge. We have already established that this information is not sacrosanct.'

Josiah gave him a hard look before answering slowly. 'She said that she had been guilty of envy on several occasions and had impure thoughts about a man in this town.'

'Envy? Lust? My impression had been that this saintly woman was too devoted to her brother's welfare to be chasing men around town.'

Josiah's expression grew darker still. 'If you're going on a crusade against lust, you better check how many men in town had impure thoughts about Miss Johnson. And you better build us a bigger jail while you're at it.'

That caused a round of sniggering in the courtroom. Linton gave the Judge an impatient look. Travis banged his gavel.

'I will have silence in my courtroom,' he told the spectators. 'Otherwise, I shall clear it. Mr Sanchez, please confine yourself to direct answers to questions. Mr Linton, I fail to see the relevance of this line of questioning. Mr Parsons, I'd be happy to sustain an objection from the defense if one were forthcoming.'

Parsons gave a calculated look of surprise. 'I'm sorry, Your Honor. I was intrigued to see where my colleague was taking us. If my client were… er… chasing men around town, I would expect the identity of her quarry to be known. As it is, the prosecution seems to rely on violating the sanctity of the confessional for its information.'

He leaned back in his chair, satisfied that his point was well made. His confidence was rewarded by the prosecution's dismissal of its witness. This time, Parsons exercised his right to cross-examine.

'Did my client confess to any other motive for her action, apart from her concern for her brother?'

'No.' Josiah closed his eyes for a moment, recalling her exact words. 'She said, "I loved him so. I couldn't bear to watch him suffer any longer."'

'Thank you, Mr Sanchez. No further questions.'

The prosecutor then proceeded to call a string of witnesses, beginning with Chris and Ezra, to each of whom he repeated his question about the deceased's view of his illness and his plans for the remainder of his life. None could provide any information to counter the suggestion that the defendant had decided to kill her brother without his instruction or consent.

Linton turned to the jury. 'The prosecution has shown that the defendant shot her brother with the intention of ending his life, having made no effort to obtain treatment for him. We are told her reasons were selfless but we have only her word on that. We have been unable to find anyone among the deceased's acquaintances in this town who heard him discuss his illness or his future plans. We know that the woman had other thoughts on her mind at the time of the murder so we must admit the possibility that her decision was reached more for her own convenience than out of concern for her brother.'

The Judge cleared his throat. 'Would the prosecution please reserve its summary for closing argument.'

Linton bowed stiffly in apology. 'The prosecution rests its case.'

Travis banged his gavel. 'Court is in recess until two this afternoon.'

Parsons patted his client's hand. 'Don't worry. We haven't batted yet.'

She gave a half-hearted smile. 'You can't change the facts.'

'We don't need to,' he said mysteriously, escorting her to a back room. He kept her company while she picked at dinner. Chris and Buck stood guard at the two doors to the room, watching the sad young woman pensively.

The other five peacekeepers shared one of Inez's snack platters in the saloon. Josiah was still irritated at being forced to reveal the woman's confession. He stabbed viciously at bits of food until one flew into Ezra's lap.

'Thank you, Mr Sanchez. Do you think you might take your frustrations out in some other way?'

'Can't believe not one of us can say anything to help her,' the big man complained. 'She was in the church praying every day and all I do is help that man make her look like a whore.'

Nathan rested a hand on his sleeve. 'We know how you feel. Me, Ezra and Chris must've played a hundred hands with Johnson but we weren't expectin' to need to testify to the state of his body or his mind.'

Vin slid his chair back. 'Well, my turn this afternoon. Parsons seems to think I may be some help.' He got to his feet and made his way to the door, unwilling to discuss his testimony before he gave it.

Judge Travis started the afternoon session on the stroke of two. He waved Parsons to commence the case for the defense. The small man sat back in his chair and addressed himself to the jury.

'As I told you this morning, we do not contest the prosecution's account of events on the day of Mr Johnson's death. However, my colleague presented you with three other things to consider: the deceased's own wishes in the matter of his death, his physical condition and the apparent lack of medical care he received, and my client's character and motivations. I intend to allow Miss Johnson to speak for herself on these issues, and I believe you will find her testimony convincing, but I shall first call one other witness to provide the insight into Mr Johnson's wishes that has proved so elusive to my colleague. I call Mr Vin Tanner to the stand.'

Vin took his place and gazed levelly at Parsons while taking the oath.

'I understand that you overheard a conversation between my client and the deceased. Would you tell me when and where the conversation took place?'

'Second week they were in town, Thursday night, in the street outside the saloon.'

'Please tell us what you heard, as near to the original as you can remember.'

Vin sat back and squinted, organizing in his mind the words he'd been over countless times since Parsons first spoke to him.

'She asked him if he was all right. He said he wasn't so good. She told him he shouldn't spend so much time in the saloon. He said it wouldn't make much difference now. He wanted her to go home or back East, said he didn't want her left out here alone after he was gone. She said she didn't want him left out here alone waitin' for the end.' He paused and added, 'It sounded like they'd been through that before. Anyhow, they started headin' back to the hotel, then he said he didn't know that he wanted to wait it out, said there's not much left for a man when he can't even finish a game of cards. She told him not to talk like that.'

'Thank you.'

Linton stood for his cross-examination.

'Do you hang around eavesdropping a lot, Mr Tanner?'

Vin wasn't about to be riled. 'Town pays me to hang around noticin' what people are doing. They were talkin' normally in a quiet street. I'd'a had to be deaf not to hear.'

'It's easy to put a certain interpretation on the conversation now, especially through the filter of your memory, but can you honestly tell us that you knew what they were talking about at the time? Please remember you are under oath.'

Linton made the mistake of trying to intimidate the witness but eventually had to look away when Vin held his stare. The tracker took his time before answering.

'There ain't nothin' wrong with my memory, 'bout the conversation or the oath. At the time,' he emphasized the words, 'I thought they were talkin' about Johnson's death. The man was coughin' blood with every breath. At the time,' he paused again, 'I thought he wanted to finish it soon and she objected to that.'

'Why would she object to him taking his own life and then take it herself?' The prosecutor looked genuinely puzzled.

'Ain't that what you're supposed to be tellin' us?'

There was another ripple of amusement in the courtroom. Linton had made no friends with his overbearing manner and the locals enjoyed seeing it fail so miserably on their protectors.

'No more…' Linton paused, then turned back to the witness. 'Do you know the identity of the man in whom the defendant was… interested?'

'No. Why would I?'

'Were you acquainted with her yourself?'

'Acquainted with?'

'Had you spoken to her?'

'Two or three times maybe.'

'And the nature of these exchanges?'

Vin shrugged. 'Passin' the time o' day. She was always pleasant. To everybody.'

'Pleasant?' The man injected a distinctly unpleasant note into the word.

'Yeah, pleasant. Polite. Thoughtful. Nice.'

'No further questions.' Linton returned to his seat.

Vin made his way back to his friends, hoping he had given the jury something to think about. Parsons called his client to the stand and waited while she was sworn in.

'I'd like to start by giving everyone a better understanding of the progress of your brother's illness.'

She nodded. 'He had consumption.'

'When was he diagnosed?'

'Three years ago, in the Spring of 1873.'

'The prosecution has made much of the fact that you sought no medical help here in Four Corners. Why was that?'

'We had already seen the best doctors in the world.' She closed her eyes as she recalled their travels. 'London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, New York, Boston, St Louis, Chicago. We tried everything. Dry climates, humid climates, hot climates, cold climates. Faith healers. Lourdes. About four months ago, Tolly said no more doctors. He was so tired of it all. He had laudanum for the pain - his lungs were in tatters - so there was nothing else to be done.' Her eyes were moist but she maintained her control.

Parsons submitted a sheaf of cables to the Judge. 'I was unable to contact the doctors in Europe in the time available but I have replies here from New York, Boston, St Louis and Chicago. As my client says, doctors in these cities examined her brother and made various suggestions, including traveling west for the desert air. All expected Mr Johnson to pass on before now.'

The defense counsel returned to face his client. 'Moving on to the matter of your brother's wishes in the matter of his death, do you remember the conversation recounted by Mr Tanner?'


'Was his an accurate account of the exchange?'

She nodded. 'Almost word for word, from what I can remember. He was right when he suggested we had talked about those things before.'

'Was your brother contemplating suicide?'

She looked at her hands for a few moments. 'He couldn't stand the idea of being bedridden, burdening me and… shaming himself. He intended to kill himself before it came to that point.'

'Why did he not do so?'

She was losing her battle for control and a single tear overflowed onto her cheek. 'He had no warning. One evening, he was playing cards and feeling no worse than usual, the next morning he couldn't draw enough breath to get up. For the first four days, he kept asking me for our gun but I hid it. Then he became too ill to ask any more.'

'Why did you hide the gun? Why not allow him to take his life if he chose?'

Parsons did not believe in rehearsing his witnesses so her surprise was genuine when she looked up at him.

'Suicide is a mortal sin. He would be damned. I couldn't allow that.'

The room was silent as understanding dawned for the first time on why she had made the choice she had.

'Please explain what you mean by a mortal sin.'

'Suicide is a sin for which you cannot be forgiven. You cannot repent so there can be no absolution.'

'So, when you fired the gun, you did not believe you were ending your brother's life but rather that you were implementing his wishes without consigning his soul to hell?'

'Yes. He is now with our Father in Heaven.' She spoke the words with utter conviction.

'What of your soul?'

'I… I'm not sure. Perhaps I can be forgiven. The Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world…' Her voice trailed off.

'Why did you shoot him? Why not, say, smother him with a pillow? That might have been taken for natural causes.'

Surprised by his change in tack, she took a moment to answer. 'I didn't think of that. When Tolly first started thinking about the end, he wondered about laudanum but he was taking so much - one builds up a tolerance - he had no idea how much it would take. He thought a bullet would be quick and painless.' She drifted into a far-off memory. 'I once had a fall while hunting. My mare broke her forelegs and Tolly had to shoot her: she stopped screaming in an instant. I think that was what made him decide on the gun. I just carried out his plan.'

'If you had thought about it, would you have tried to conceal the crime?'

She thought for a while.

'I'm not sure. I am sorry for all the trouble I have caused everyone. Perhaps it would have been better another way. But the consequences here don't really matter.'

'The verdict of this court doesn't matter?' he prompted gently.

'I meant no disrespect. Only that if I am to spend eternity in hell, it won't make any difference whether I start now or later.'

'Thank you.' The little man gave her hand a squeeze. 'No more questions.'

Linton rose for his cross-examination. Frances had given a strong performance and his options were limited. He decided to go for attacking her credibility, a risky strategy that could backfire if he alienated the jury but one he was more than willing to try.

'So, you consider yourself a pious woman?'

'I have faith. I believe that is something we share, Mr Linton.'

His look was pure venom. 'I am a Lutheran, not a Papist idolater.'

She was visibly taken aback. 'I… I'm sorry. I meant only that we are both Christians.'

'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,' he quoted. 'But then you don't seem to be too concerned about the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not covet. You confessed your envy: what did you covet?'

'I… I've never been very confident. Tolly was always the outgoing one, made friends wherever we went. I envied him that. Other people always seem so sure of themselves. I often wish I were more like them.'

'So your brother dragged you to doctors around the world, then went off with his friends leaving you all alone?'

'No. No. I wanted to go with him. He never made me do anything.'

'Even here, he was out playing cards every night until he needed you to take care of him.' He consulted his notes. 'Mr Tanner told us that you said your brother shouldn't spend so much time in the saloon.'

'Not because I minded. It was because the smoke made the coughing worse.'

'So you say.'

She did not reply.

He reined himself back, wary of taking his assault on her too far, too fast.

'It must have disrupted your life to spend three years traveling. Not very exciting going from one doctor to another.'

She was disconcerted by his change in pace but answered as best she could. 'No, it wasn't just doctors. We saw wondrous things… Versailles, the Acropolis, St Peters, the pyramids…'

'We don't need a full itinerary,' the prosecutor interjected sourly. 'I take it you are well-fixed.'

'I… I have an income,' she conceded.

'Still, you must want more from life than sightseeing with a sick brother. Husband? Children?'

'Perhaps one day.'

'Perhaps you were getting tired of waiting. After three years, you suddenly decide to take him out of the picture. I'm curious about your interest in a man in this town. It seems quite a coincidence. It must have been difficult to fit man-hunting in around nursing a sick relation.'

Parsons rose to his feet. 'Objection. Argumentative.

Judge Travis eyed the two attorneys. 'Are you going somewhere with this, Mr Linton?'

'If it please Your Honor, if the fact that the defendant killed the deceased is not in dispute, then this case turns on her character and motivations. So far, she has been portrayed as virtue personified. I want to be certain that we are not being duped.'

'I can't say it pleases me at all,' the Judge growled. 'But I'll allow you a little more latitude.'

'Are you in the habit of having,' Linton consulted his notes again, 'impure thoughts about men in the towns you visit?'


'What's so special about this man?'

She didn't answer.

'How well do you know him?'

'Not very.'

'So you just like the way he looks?'

'Not just that… he's kind.'

'To you?'

'Not in particular.'

'How do you know he's kind then?'

'One doesn't need to be a recipient of kindness to know that someone is kind, any more than one needs to be a victim of brutality to know that someone is brutal.'

'So you're telling us that your confession was for thinking a man kind.'

'Of course not,' she said disdainfully. 'Admiring kindness is not a sin.'

'Would your brother have objected to you becoming involved with someone?'

'No. I don't think so. I don't know. This has nothing to do with…'

'It would be hard to settle down with someone while your brother was still in the process of dying though, wouldn't it?'

'Objection. Harassing the witness.' Parsons interjected.

'Sustained. You are trying my patience, Mr Linton.'

The prosecutor gave a slight nod.

'You say you do not know this man very well. Would you say that you had spoken to him two or three times, maybe?'

The words had a familiar ring but it was a moment before she placed them. She looked at Parsons and saw that he understood the significance of the question too. Not only would the answer humiliate her but it would also cast doubt on the only corroboration of her testimony.

She sat a little straighter, looked Linton in the eye and replied, 'Three times, yes. This has nothing to do with what I did.'

'So you say. But the fact remains that the only testimony to support your version of events comes from a man you were chasing. No further questions.'

Vin looked up in surprise. Not only had he not known the object of Frances' impure thoughts, he had given the matter no thought. Never in a thousand years would he have expected to catch her eye. Buck's charm or Ezra's style… maybe… but his rough and ready-

He was jolted out of his reverie by Buck's elbow in his ribs and jabbed back hard with his own. He scowled in response to his friend's wide grin.

The Judge looked towards Parsons. 'Redirect?'

Parsons drew close to his witness and smiled reassuringly. 'To clarify things for the jury, we are talking about Mr Tanner, are we not?'

Frances fixed her eyes on the floor, blushed and whispered, 'Yes.'

Vin ignored the stares he knew had turned on him and maintained his own steady gaze on Warren Parsons. His concern for Frances had nothing to do with any feelings she might have for him. She was on trial for her life and he was sorry that her honesty might now undermine her only defense.

'The prosecution has painted a rather colorful picture of your relationship with this man, leading to conspiracy to murder. Yet you both claim to have spoken only two or three times. Mr Tanner characterized those conversations as passing the time of day. Was that a fair description?'


'You said that he is kind. What made you think so?'

For the first time since Parsons began his redirect, Frances looked at him. 'I am not so friendless as Mr Linton imagines. There is an old lady called Nettie Wells who lives out of town. During our first weeks here, I visited her several times. I asked her about Mr Tanner. She told me that he and his friends helped her when someone tried to steal her land. She is very fond of him.'

'So this torrid liaison consisted of you taking a liking to a man you saw around town and discussing him with a female friend.'


Several of the jurors smiled at that.

'My colleague has made much of your confession. Would I be right in thinking that you set yourself high standards?'

She looked uncertain. 'I try to do as I was taught.'

'Most people would see no harm in thinking something if they had not acted on their desire.'

'The desire to sin is as wrong as the sin itself.'

'Most people would view that as a high standard. Did you have any plans to act on this desire in the future?'

'No. I…' she faltered.

'Please go on.'

'Sitting with Tolly… at the end… was so painful. I tried to think of nice things, our home, our travels. Mr Tanner was one of the nice things. Those were the thoughts I confessed.' She looked at Linton. 'Mr Linton can never have loved anyone if he imagines that sickness turns a beloved brother into an inconvenience. When Tolly first became ill, I offered God my life to save his. Later, I offered my life to end his. When one goes through something like this, there are no plans outside it, beyond it. One hopes only to endure it.'

'Thank you. No further questions.'

There was silence for a moment, until the Judge cleared his throat and called a fifteen-minute recess before closing arguments.

When the session resumed, Linton took up position in front of the jury. He drew himself to his full height and adopted his most learned air. He honestly believed that the facts of the case supported a conviction and knew he had compromised the defense's only corroborating witness but he also knew he had lost the emotional battle. His attempt to make the defendant look like a calculating tart had succeeded only in reinforcing her virtue. He only had one card left to play. His checks had revealed that none of the jury members were Roman Catholic. All were nominally Protestant, with some fervent Baptists and Lutherans.

'Well,' he told the jury. 'It's been an interesting day. We know a lot more now about the lives of Mr and Miss Johnson. But nothing you have heard changes the basic facts of the case as outlined this morning. The defendant may have an obscure Papist justification for what she did but all we are interested in here is the law. She talks of mortal sin but that is a Catholic construct that has no basis in scripture. She deliberately shot her brother with the intention of ending his life. She is guilty of murder and must answer for her crime. It is for God to decide the fate of her soul.'

He returned to his seat, handing the floor to Parsons. The small man stood beside Frances and surveyed the jurors one by one.

'I asked you this morning to think about justice as well as the law. Our laws change over time. We modify them when they do not adequately reflect the situations people face. I ask you now to consider whether our law adequately reflects this situation. Mr Johnson's life had become a burden to him, a burden of which he longed to be rid. He had already far exceeded the span predicted for him by the best doctors our great country could offer. Miss Johnson initially denied him the release he sought because she feared the torment he had endured in this life would extend into eternity. She then released him herself, with the expectation that she would pay with her life in this world and her soul in the next.

'With this in mind, the prosecution's insinuations about my client's motives are ludicrous. She did not expect to be alive next week, let alone lining a nest for herself. To find her guilty of murder, you must be certain that the defendant not only took life deliberately but that the taking of life was her goal. I put it to you that her goal was to fulfil her brother's wishes, while protecting his soul, something more important to her than the few days of suffering that were left to him. I would not characterize that as murder.'

Parsons resumed a position at his table. The Judge scanned his notes thoughtfully before instructing the jury.

'This is an unusual case but there are precedents. Some courts have upheld the taking of life when the intention was solely to end suffering. If you are convinced that the defendant acted on her brother's wishes, for his sake, then you may conclude that a verdict of not guilty is appropriate. If you have any doubt that her motives were altruistic, you are obliged to return a guilty verdict.' With that he dismissed the court, leaving Chris and Buck to escort the jury to the hotel where they would conduct their deliberations.

Parsons saw Frances back to her own room. Josiah and Ezra took their turn at her door.

'I'm sorry we had to go through all that,' the attorney told his client.

She smiled faintly. 'You warned me that Mr Linton would use all the means at his disposal.'

'Try not to worry, my dear. An attorney can never predict how a jury will vote but I feel quietly optimistic.'

She smiled. 'I am ready for whatever comes and grateful for all the work you have done on my behalf.'

When Parsons left the room, he found Vin waiting with Josiah and Ezra.

'Can I see her?' the tracker asked.

The small man looked up at him appraisingly, then shrugged. 'If she wishes to see you. I'm sure I don't need to tell you she has found today… humiliating.'

Vin liked the attorney, recognizing his keen intelligence and fierce integrity. He smiled and said, 'No, you don't need to tell me. I ain't out to make her feel worse.'

Parsons left him to it. Vin knocked on the door. Frances flushed deeply when she saw him and retreated into the room. He let himself in and closed the door softly.

'Hell of a day,' he said.

She turned to look at him, saw the twinkle in his eyes and gave a small smile.

'Not the best I've had,' she confessed.

'I wanted you to know I'm flattered. You don't need to give another thought to anythin' that sack o' dirt said.'

'Thank you. You're very… kind.' That brought back the little smile.

He settled himself on the edge of the bed and beckoned for her to join him.

'You must miss your brother.'

She nodded, put her head in her hands and began to weep silently. He slipped an arm around her waist, turned her face to his shoulder and stroked her hair. He comforted her for the best part of an hour. Between bouts of tears, she talked about her brother and their travels, glad of someone to share her burden of grief. When he left, she was tired but calm.

Josiah looked up as Vin closed the door.

'How is she?'

Vin waved his hand in a so-so gesture.


The Grain Exchange was full again at ten the following morning. The crowd was still as the jury filed back to their seats. The Judge asked the foreman if they had reached a verdict.

'We have, Your Honor,' the man replied. 'On the charge of murder, we find the defendant… not guilty.'

The courtroom erupted into life. There was overwhelming support for the verdict, with only a few disgruntled faces here and there. Travis pounded his gavel to restore order.

'Well, Miss Johnson. It seems you are free to go. I shall record my own support for the jury's verdict. I am very happy to leave any judgement in this case to the Almighty.' He nodded to counsel and jury. 'Thank you, gentlemen.'

Parsons beamed. A victory was always a delight but this one was close to his heart and he was pleased his friend had called him in. Frances hugged him appreciatively.

Linton's displeasure was equally apparent. The verdict was a blow to his professional credibility in what he saw as an open-and-shut case. It also offended his personal moral code.

Vin waited until things had calmed down a bit before offering his arm to Frances.

'Walk you back to the hotel?'

She slipped her arm though his, her confidence boosted by the respect his public gesture restored to her after the humiliation of the previous day.

'Will you go home?' he asked as they walked along Main Street.

'Yes. I need to try to pick up my life again.'

'I wanted you to know one more thing. I noticed you before all this an' I wasn't the only one… far from it. You shouldn't wanna be like other folk - you're jus' fine the way you are.'

When they reached her room, she invited him in. He accepted and, once inside, drew her close and kissed her fondly. He had no intention of giving her any further cause for guilt so they spend the afternoon in affectionate but chaste embraces.

The next morning, Frances was packed and ready to join Warren Parsons on the eastbound stagecoach. To her relief, Joel Linton's next engagement was in the opposite direction. Vin waited with her while the coach prepared to leave, then kissed her and helped her on board. He and Parsons shook hands warmly.

The tracker returned to one of his regular leaning-posts outside the saloon, alongside Chris. They watched the coach as it was enveloped by dust.

Vin sighed. 'Reckon we ain't the only ones with troubles. I'll be damned if I'd wanna have to think right as well as act right.'

Chris grinned and said only, 'See you in hell.'


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