Never hang an innocent man.



Oklahoma Territory

December, 1864

Dawn's gun metal gray sky absorbed the sun irrevocably, dispensing its light like a miser dolling out pennies. A soft snow was falling. The wind was a whisper through twisted branches of sage brush and beaux d'arc trees. Autumn's fallen leaves rustled with the wintry stir to tumble into drifts, which grew in the clay draws of a creek. Frozen into a sparkling ribbon of crystal, the creek snaked through shallow valleys, from one low, rocky hill to the next, roughly following an outcropping of slate that formed a ridgeline pointed southeast. Where this ridge ended, the frozen stream turned sharply due south to flow over a rough, graveled bed. Somewhere in that direction, the Red River marked the boundaries of Texas, and warmer lands beyond. As though mourning its fate, a towering live oak stood rooted at the bend, just where the slate disappeared once more beneath a cover of topsoil.

Its thick boughs were gnarled and much twisted, but were not unhandsome. Its lowermost branches drooped down to within a man's height of the ground, only to rise up towards the sky at their distal ends, reaching to the storming heavens high above. Climbing more than two hundred feet into the air, the great oak shadowed hundreds of square feet with its evergreen leaves, and was by far the tallest thing to be seen for many miles in all directions. The scrubby beaux d'arcs and marauding mesquites that populated this wilderness were no match for its majestic growth, and offered nothing nearly so hospitable as the oak's shade in times of summer, or its shelter in times of winter.

William Morgan, known to most as Point, cinched his coat collar tighter around his makeshift muffler and huffed a great plume of steaming breath. It was cold. Too damned cold. What I need is a nice, hot fire. Only he didn't have his tinder box, and most everything he saw was days damp. There was plenty of natural flint lying around, some of it of the dark, glassy kind best for making sparks, but no amount of chipping rocks was going to start a flame in this weather. Point knew it. Just like he knew that he was a dead man if he didn't find shelter soon.

Thus he was drawn to the gigantic oak tree and its harboring arms. Point had herded market bound cattle along the creek for many years, so he knew the territory well enough to recognize the run of that sway backed slate ridge and its accompanying creek.

Even now, as he stumbled along, often cutting his bare feet on sharp stones and thorny twigs, Point could see the oak's uppermost branches outlined in silhouette against a dimly glowing sky. Almost there. Just keep goin'. Don't stop. You're almost there.

Morgan's breath billowed through the tied sleeves of his panel underwear, which he had knotted about his throat to help his coat keep out the wind. Like a chugging steam engine, he puffed along, cursing when his frost bitten toes struck particularly abusive obstacles.

His pants legs were tattered above alabaster ankles, and so stirred, flapping, with the quickening breeze. Finding himself on the wrong side of the stream, Point gritted his teeth, gulped a deep breath, and started across the ice. He hoped he had found a shallow ford, and winced down to his anus with every snap and crackle of fractured ice. As he neared the opposite bank, he felt the surface beneath his right foot bow and give way with a hollow splash. Gasping involuntarily, Point pushed off hard with his left foot to get out of the freezing, knee deep water. Now both legs were thoroughly wetted, and Morgan got wetter before he hauled himself up on the far bank.

Chilled to his core, all doubt of mortality left Point's mind. I've had some close calls in my time, but never so close as this. Not even the cholera came so near to claiming me. If I don't get warm soon, I might as well lie down to die comfortably. This thought was distressingly pleasing to his state of mind, and he found himself eyeing each draw and drain for a good spot to lie down. Just for a minute. Just a little sleep, then I'll get up and climb that ridge. I'll have my metal back, after I rest up a bit. But it was self-deception. Point realized, despite his own weary cravings, that he would never wake up from a sleep in the falling snow.

So he cinched his coat's lapels together with icy hands, put his head down, and charged into the wind, up the slope at a trot. Faster and faster he forced his legs to move, his feet thankfully numbed by the waters. A trail of blood followed him from step to step, but Point didn't notice. His gaze was intent on the way before him, on the ridgeline, which was his goal. It seemed an insurmountable summit, an endless stair climbing to heaven, and no hand of God to speed him lightly on his way. When his legs failed, Point outstretched his arms and clawed at the Earth like an animal, on all fours.

With a lurch, Morgan made his way onto the hill's broken back, tripped, and tumbled headlong down the other side. A flurry of snow and pebbles trailed after, clattering in a miniature avalanche, and him the largest rolling stone of them all.

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