Josh was test firing the .36 caliber Navy Colt, that had been converted from cap and ball to take cartridges.
The proofing had already been done. For that, Gene used a device into which a gun could be clamped and the gun loaded with triple charged cartridges and no bullet, the trigger pulled by a string. He had tested all six cylinders twice, and satisfied that it would hold up, he gave it to Josh to test its accuracy.
Using his left hand, his right arm still a little sore to be firing a gun, he had fired twenty three shots at a target, fifty feet away, covered with paper. He fired one last time. Then opening the loading gate of the Colt, he emptied it of all six shells. Sure that it was empty, he put the shells in a box with the other eighteen, and putting the gun beside it on the table, went to get the paper target.
He was pleased when he examined the target, that all twenty-four shots were in the six inch ring and most were in the three inch, and the three shots which were in the six inch ring had been his first three shots. Not because of his marksmanship, by now he knew he was a good shot with a gun even with a .45, though that he had to hold with both hands, but because the gun had passed the final test.
When he turned, he saw that a man had picked up the gun and was hefting it. Josh said with a chill voice, "Put that gun down, you don't touch another man's gun without their permission." the man sneered at Josh, who took an instant dislike to him.
"Talking a little big, for a kid who ain't armed."
"No, but I am, and that's my gun you're holding, and like he says you don't touch another man's gun without their permission." said a man behind him. "And I'd be careful, how you turn around, Conch." said Clay Addison, the sheriff.
At twenty-nine he was about four or five years older than the other man, and a very dangerous man.
Conch put the gun back down, and turned around very slowly, keeping his hand well away from his gun. He had the name of a bad man, but he knew he'd never see the day when he was fast enough to take on Clay Addison.
Clay stood there in the doorway, relaxed looking at the young man, "Are you here to buy something or are you just an innocent bystander. If it's the latter, go bystand somewhere else."
"Sure, sheriff, I just heard the shooting and wondered what was going on, that's all." There was no fear in his voice, and Clay respected that. Josh could hear it too, and his respect for Conch went up a bit, but it didn't affect the dislike he felt of the man. Conch gave Josh a little wave, "See ya, later kid." and he ambled off.
Clay came out of the shop and walked as far as the table, as Josh was headed toward him. He hefted the gun, and spun it a couple of times on his trigger finger. "It's got a nice balance. It looks like Gene did a nice job, as usual, letís see that target."
He held it up and gave a whistle, "Mighty straight shooting gun, and for a kid you sure can shoot."
Shyly, Josh said, "Three are in the six inch ring."
"Yeah," said Clay, dryly. "Your first three shots. I watched the whole thing. How would you do with your right hand, if your arm was completely healed."
Josh answered, honestly, "Probably a little worse, to start with, it would have taken me about five or six shots to range in, but after that about the same."
Gene said from the doorway, "He's not quite as good with a .44 or .45, the recoil is too wicked for him, or any kid his size. With a gun he knows, at thirty yards he'll hit within three inches of what he's aiming at with the first shot, and he'll put the rest of the six shots within a nine inch circle."
"Damn, I couldn't shoot that well, when I was fifteen," said Clay, with humor in his voice.
"Hell, Clay, I can't shoot that well now. Why do you think he's the one doing the accuracy test? With that caliber and the lesser recoil, he's deadly. For larger calibers, when I'm doing accuracy tests, I generally clamp it down and start from there."
Over the next two months, Josh saw Conch around town every once in a while, and every time he saw him his dislike increased. Conch wasn't an evil man, though not a particularly good man either, but their personalities just seemed to rub each other the wrong way. If they had both been adults it probably would have ended in gunplay.
But aside from that little bit of annoyance the time passed in a satisfactory manner for Josh. He had gone from the baby level all the way up to the second grade level, and Tanny told him if he kept improving as he was, he would be at his own grade level by the end of the school year.
Getting up between five and six Josh and Joseph would do their chores, and then before breakfast Josh would spend a half hour up on the roof of the house with Gene's old Civil War binoculars just looking around. The house being on somewhat of a rise, he could see for a long distance around, and one of the views he could see was the corral at the back of the livery stable.
One Tuesday morning before school, Josh was doing his usual look around, and he happened to look down at the livery stable corral, and he saw Conch standing leaning against the corral rails. It wasn't the first time he had seen him. The man seemed to have his eye on the bay that the livery stable owned.
Josh started to look away, he had no interest in what Conch was doing, when he caught sight of the Biggers brothers walking up, and Conch turn. He saw Conch and Jason go into a gunfighter's crouch, and he saw Jason start to draw a gun from his waistband, and he heard the shot. He saw the red blossom on Jason's chest, the man smashed backwards, the gun coming clear and flying out of his hand as he went down.
He saw Conch turn away, he never found out why he would take his eye off of another potential enemy in Bubba. He saw Bubba pick up the gun, which had landed at his feet, and disappear.
Josh slid down the roof, almost going over the side, onto the shed, which was where he intended to go, but not by falling. Catching himself at the last minute, he swung down onto the shed and jumped down, and headed for the livery stable at top speed. When he got there he could hear Bubba yelling, obviously wherever he had gone, he was back.
"And Conch just shot him down in cold blood, why else would he resist arrest." Bubba yelled.
Squirming Josh pushed his way into through the crowd to the front, and he saw that Conch was lying on the ground, obviously having had a pistol barrel laid on his head.
Josh was shy, but he yelled, "Bubba's lying sheriff, I saw it, and Jason had a gun. Bubba took it off somewhere."
Bubba said, "You lying little orphan." and he raised his hand intending to hit Josh.
Clay said, "I wouldn't, Bubba. I already hit one person with a gun barrel, I'm sure it'll survive a second."
Bubba brought his arm down, and with a surly voice, "Who ya gonna believe. A little orphan kid who's been here three or four months, or someone you've known all your life."
"I guess we're going to have to find out at the trial," said the Judge, "A week from today. Telman's Saloon as usual. Nine AM sharp.
Sam Fields didn't like Conch much better than Josh did, but he took the case because he believed that Josh was telling the truth. He stood up, "Your Honor, this trail really is about who is the more reliable witness, Joshua Horner, or Robert Bubba Biggers. Therefore I would like to start my case by examining the character of my witness. I have a deposition sworn by a Mrs. Ralph Higgins, before the sheriff of Comfort, that I would like to read to the court."
'I was trying to cut some wood, for the stove, and not having much luck. I got a husband and three younguns who usually do that, but they was away for three days. I gave them a talking too when they got back, not leaving me with enough wood. This kid came asked if he could cut the wood for something to eat. Real skinny kid, but I accepted and he did a good job. As soon as I knew I'd have enough to last I stopped him and gave him some food to eat. He didn't eat all that much, and when I asked him, he said that's all he could eat, that he didn't eat that much. There was no self pity in his voice.
I cut several slices of bread, and put them in a bag and then hard hearted or not, I picked a dime out my egg money and offered it to him. I was plumb amazed when at first he wouldn't accept it. I had to threaten to switch his bottom to make him take it.
When I saw him walking away I didn't think he'd live very long, if he wasn't willing to take what was offered, or to beg or steal. It's nice to know he's doing all right.
Mrs. Ralph Higgins Witness - Sheriff Lem Hoskins'
"Now for my first witness. I'd like to call Mr. Carl Brennen, also from Comfort."
The man who took the stand was obviously a gambler. "Mr. Brennen, do you know Joshua Horner."
"Yes I do. I saw three boys, who'd bullied every boy their age and younger in town, try to bully him. He kicked one in the groin, broke the second one's nose, then kicked the first one on the chin, and almost put him out. The third was wise enough, to get out of there. It was a sight that I really enjoyed. I threw him a silver dollar."
"Later that night, I was just coming out of my saloon door for a breath of fresh air, when I heard the yell of ambush in a boy's voice, and then a shot was fired. The bushwhacker had twisted around to shoot at the boy. There was a shotgun guard walking across the street heading for home, and he let go both barrels, almost cutting the bushwhacker in two. I understand he was from your town. One Reese Matthews."
"No loss, I assure you, Mr. Brennen." said Sam. "Now what was Josh doing in the alley?"
"Well I didn't find that out until later that evening. He was in some shock, the bullet that the bushwhacker had fired just missed and he was curled up like an armadillo. I carried him up to one of the rooms and later, after he had relaxed and gone to sleep, I undressed him and put him to bed. I found that he was carrying a money belt with one thousand dollars in paper money, wrapped in a letter, and twenty-four dollars in coin.
"When I came back after he woke with some food, I asked him what he was doing in the alley. He told me, and his exact words, 'sleeping of course'. I asked him why he would do that when he had over a thousand dollars on him. He said it wasn't his, and if he could get where he was going without spending any of it he would."
"Mr. Brennen would you read this letter out loud and tell me if it's the letter you saw wrapped around the paper. Just up to the point where the letter is folded."
'Dear Gene and Joseph,
I've only known the boy who will deliver this money belt for a couple of hours, and I already know that without help he won't survive for very much longer.
He has a sense of honor, that is more important to him than life itself. How he has lived this long, I don't know. There was one thousand and twenty four dollars. Unless he has no other choice, I would bet that that's exactly the amount that you will receive.'
"Yes that's the letter that I read." said Brennen.
"Thank you Mr. Brennen, now before I get back to you, I would like ask Judge Howard's permission to ask a question of two members of the audience, without having them take the stand."
"Who Sam," asked the Judge.
"Gene Vinson, and Tanny Barker." said Sam.
"Gene and Tanny consider yourself sworn in. Go ahead Sam."
"Gene, one question for you, how much money did you get when Josh delivered it?" he asked.
"One thousand and twenty-four dollars." Gene said, "You can ask Paul Mannion, that's exactly the amount I deposited in his bank."
"I don't think that's necessary right now. Tanny, could Josh have read any of that letter?" he asked.
"Not a chance. He's doing astonishingly well, but at the moment he's at the second grade level and still printing. He hasn't even started to read handwriting yet, though he could scrawl his name, I did teach him how to do it decently." she said positively.
"Thank you, Tanny. Now Mr. Brennen, usually it's customary to reward someone who saves your life, even if it's just a token. Did you do so?" he inquired.
"I intended to give him five hundred dollars. I value my life quite highly, thank you. But after reading that letter and talking to him after, I figured he would refuse, so I asked him if he would accept my paying for a stagecoach ride to Rowley. I could tell he was pretty reluctant but he did accept."
"Would you trust him Mr. Brennen?" asked Sam.
"With my life, my money and my deepest darkest secrets." Brennen said simply.
"Thank you, Mr. Brennen, that's all I need from you. I thank for coming all the way from Comfort for this trial. Any questions, prosecutor?" he asked the man, who just shook his head.
"Just one more question, for Mr. Vinson your honor. Gene, what happened after you read the letter?" Sam asked.
Gene said, amusement in his voice, "He was halfway out of town by then, so we had to go after him and offer him a job."
"So he didn't even stay around long enough to collect a reward for what he had done?"
"No, I offered him a job because George said that's the only way he would have stayed. Getting to know him, I know George was right. He wouldn't even let us send him to school, because he didn't feel what he was doing was worth that much. It wasn't until after the bank robbery, when Paul Mannion gave him five hundred dollars reward to further his education, and he formally signed apprentice papers that included him attending school, that he finally went."
"One final witness before I call Josh to the stand, and I don't think we need bother to have this one take the stand either." Sam said, amusement evident in his voice.
"Who this time, Sam? This is getting a little irregular." said Judge Howard.
"I know, Your Honor, however it's not all that often when we're trying the credibility of a couple of witnesses and not the defendant. And my witness is the Sheriff."
"All right, you're right it is an unusual case. You're sworn, Clay." said the Judge, waving his hand.
"One question to you if I may before I get to Clay?" said Sam, carefully restraining his urge to grin.
"What the he.. Oh, never mind, ask away."
"What would you do if you saw a nickel on the street Judge?" asked Sam.
"Why, unless there was someone around who was looking for something, I'd pick it up and put it in my pocket." said the surprised Judge.
"I would do the same, Judge and I'm sure most of us would." Turning to Clay Addison, who was sitting just behind the prisoner.
"Clay, you were telling me this over lunch, one day last week. What happened a week ago last yesterday?" he asked.
"Josh came into the office, with a nickel he had found. I said it would be impossible to find the owner, but he said that he had heard that when you found money you turned it in to the sheriff. It may only have been a nickel but he had found it, and it wasn't his, so he was turning it in. Just like you and the Judge I would have put it in my pocket thinking it would be impossible to find the owner."
"I was having lunch with Paul Mannion, and told him about the nickel Josh had brought in, though I didn't say who brought it in, and he asked if it was an 1859 nickel. I was sure surprised because that was the date all right. He said he had lost a nickel of that date. His brother Burton had given it to him as a keepsake just before he went off to join the Union during the Civil War and never came back. He said he would give a hundred dollars to the one who'd found it. When he learned that it was Josh, a look of dismay came over his face, we both knew it would be almost impossible to get Josh to accept the reward."
"Thank you, Clay, I would like to call Josh to the stand, now your honor." and he winked at the Judge who winked back. Looking at the jury, he could see they were pretty convinced of whose character to rely on, but he had arranged with the Judge to call him no matter what.
Josh was sworn in, "Do you know what you just swore, Josh."
"Yes, to tell the truth, no matter what." said Josh.
"All right, tell us what happened last week, when Conch shot Jason Biggers." said Sam.
Josh started at the beginning, the fact that he liked to climb up on the roof and look all around, then continued with the whole story.
"Now this question has nothing to do with this case, but you're sworn to answer the question, and the Judge has agreed in advance to these questions. Do you love Gene and Marnie, Josh?" asked Sam.
Josh looked astonished, and the Judge reminded him that he had to answer, very low, and very shyly, "Yes."
"Would you like to be their son?" Sam continued.
"Yes. Oh, yes." Josh said fervently.
"Do you know what adoption is, Josh?" Sam asked.
"No, what's that?" he asked with a blank look on his small face.
"If you were adopted, you would legally be the son of the ones who adopted you, just as if you were born to them." Sam explained.
Turning to the audience, "Gene would you and Marnie like to adopt Josh?"
They answered almost in one voice, "With all our heart!"
"That's all the questions I have your honor. Josh you... Oh, I do have a question, what would you think Paul Mannion should do with the reward that he wants to pay?" Sam asked, a last minute thought.
Josh thought for a minute, then said shyly, "The school could always use more books."
"All right Josh, unless my colleague has any other questions." He looked at the prosecutor, who shook his head. "All right, Josh you may return to your seat."
Josh did so, sitting beside Marnie, who put her arm around him.
"I don't have any more witnesses, Your Honor." said Sam, quite satisfied.
The judge looked at the prosecutor, "Do you have any character witnesses for Bubba Biggers, Mr. Watson?"
The man stood up, shaking his head ruefully, "Sorry, Your Honor, I asked a dozen people and no one would come." and laughter rippled through the courtroom, the judge also obviously laughing, holding his hand over his mouth.
Once the mirth was out of the way, he turned to the jury, "Do you wish to retire to consider a verdict?"
The foreman said, "I don't believe so, Your Honor. I think we can come up with a verdict without having to do that."
"Very well." said the Judge.
It only took a few minutes, then the foreman stood up, "We have a verdict, Your Honor."
"Very well, what is it." asked Judge Howard.
"We find the defendant, not guilty, and maybe the sheriff should ask some pointed questions of Bubba, who I see is just leaving the courtroom."
The judge raised his gavel, but before he brought it down, the foreman said, "Before you do that, Your Honor, we'd like to give another verdict, we know this one ain't legal but we'd all like to see it acted on. We sentence Josh Horner, to be adopted by Gene and Marnie Vinson. That's all, Your Honor."
The judge said, "You're right, it's certainly not legal, but I agree with you, and we'll see what can be arranged legally." and bringing his gavel down the judge said, "With a verdict of Not Guilty, this court is adjourned.
Josh had been working extra hard over the last three months so by the time the adoption papers became final he could read them, and he had been reading them over and over since noon, especially his new name, Joshua Vinson. He was fast asleep, a smile lighting up his face, when Gene removed the document from his hands.
The final step to making them a family had occurred. George Vinson, would have been really pleased, and somewhere up above he was smiling widely.