“Attempted murder?” Julia repeated incredulously. As the words slipped off her tongue, her mind rejected them, for they made absolutely no sense. “Of whom?”
“Why, of Horace.” Dorothy’s expression was pained. “I’m so sorry, Julia. I…I assumed you knew.”
Julia shook her head in firm denial of what she’d just heard. “No, that can’t be right…Hank said they just got in a bit of a scuffle, that there was nothing to worry about!”
“Weren’t no scuffle,” Mr. Bray interjected matter-of-factly as he walked up. “Hank kept swingin’ an’ swingin’ an’ just wouldn’t stop!” His voice grew louder as he noticed the gathering crowd. “He beat poor Horace within an inch o’ his life! Why, if Ruby hadn’t slapped some sense into ‘im—”
“Apparently Hank ain’t the only one ‘round here needin’ to get slapped,” Ruby interrupted, her tone of voice and the hard expression on her face making it more than clear she meant every word. “Maybe you need a good whack too, Loren, fer runnin’ yer damn mouth.”
The mouth in question fell open as Mr. Bray gaped at the crowd, obviously waiting for someone to come to his defense. No one did. Julia suspected no one dared.
“You oughta be ashamed o’ yerself,” Ruby scolded, her hands planted defiantly on her hips. “Ya call yerself Hank’s friend, an’ yet here ya are, gossipin’ ‘bout ‘im an’ scarin’ his poor wife half to death!”
Mr. Bray stiffened. “It ain’t right to give ‘er false hope. There’s a very real possibility Hank’ll hang fer what he done, an’ she needs to be prepared fer it.”
Terror struck Julia’s heart at his words, and she gasped, one hand flying up to cover her mouth on impulse.
“Now ya gone an’ done it!” Ruby declared angrily as she advanced on Mr. Bray. “I’m gonna throttle you, ya mean ol’ codger!”
Still numb with shock, Julia could only watch as her friend dove for the now stammering mercantile owner. The throng of people hovering nearby quickly backed away, giving Ruby a wide berth, the crowd buzzing to life at the sensational sight of Mr. Bray being choked by the irate redhead.
“Look! Here he comes!” someone called out over the din, and a hush fell over the crowd. It wasn’t difficult for Julia to ascertain who he was. Ruby’s look of dismay would’ve revealed the answer if the telling stares and whispers hadn’t.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” Dorothy whispered consolingly, giving her other hand, the one that wasn’t still clamped over her mouth, a comforting squeeze.
Heart pounding in her throat, Julia slowly turned in the direction of the stares. She knew what she would find, but it didn’t make it any less painful to see Hank marching towards her, Dr. Quinn and Sheriff Simon flanking him on either side.
His gaze captured hers, his expression dark and unreadable, and obeying the anguished outcry of her mind, she did the only thing she could.
Yanking her hand away from Dorothy, she ran to Hank as fast as she could, as fast as she had that first day when trying to catch up with him and Ellie. It was a much shorter distance this time, yet it felt like an eternity before she reached him. He was ready for her, though, bending down to meet her as she threw her arms around his neck. She waited for him to pull her close, to embrace her back, but such comfort never came. Fear grabbed her aching heart and squeezed.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed, knowing everyone in town could see and hear but not caring in the slightest. “I didn’t mean what I said…please don’t be angry with me!”
“Shh…I ain’t angry, darlin’… Ain’t no need to ‘pologize...” His lips brushed her cheek, but still he didn’t take her in his arms.
Pulling back slightly, she blinked up at him through tear-filled eyes. “Then why aren’t you holding me? Why aren’t you hugging me back?”
His smile wobbled as he answered, “Can’t. I’m in handcuffs.”
Julia’s eyes widened. She’d been so upset that she hadn’t even noticed, but after a closer look, she saw his hands were indeed locked behind his back. Her heart sank like a stone in her chest. What Mr. Bray had said must be true after all. It was all true. One glance over at Dr. Mike’s worried face confirmed it.
Julia clutched a fistful of Hank’s shirt in a frantic attempt to draw him closer. Tears formed in her eyes, but she didn’t have the strength to hold them back. Resting her head wearily on his chest, she whispered, “How will I ever live without you?”
“Won’t have to, darlin’.”
Her eyes were closed, but she felt his lips press against her forehead. Hot tears slid down her face.
“Gonna talk to Horace…work things out ‘tween us. Everythin’ll be just fine. You’ll see.”
“But Mr. Bray,” she protested in between tiny sobs, “he said you could be hanged!”
Hank searched out Loren in the crowd, leveling him with his darkest scowl. How dare that meddlesome old man say something like that to his wife. His eyes darted over to Ruby. How dare she let him. She was supposed to protect Julia from all of this, not involve her in a public spectacle. He wanted to march over there and give both of his so-called “friends” a piece of his mind, but couldn’t. Julia was clinging to him as if her life depended on it, one fist clenched tight around a handful of his shirt, the cloth and his chest growing damp with her tears.
Setting his anger aside for her sake, he gave her what little comfort he could. He kissed the top of her head, breathing deeply of her sweet scent, trying to ingrain it in his memory. Whether she smelled of rain, or roses, or a warm summer’s day, he wanted to remember it, remember her forever.
“Ain’t gonna come to that,” he promised, not nearly as confident as he hoped he sounded. More than likely it would come to that, unless by some miracle Horace changed his mind.
As Julia raised her head and peered up at him, the sight of her tear-streaked face nearly did him in. He found himself straining against his bonds, as more than anything, he wanted to reach down and wipe her tears away. Guilt and remorse churned sickeningly in his gut. The last thing he’d wanted was to cause her even more distress, not to mention the embarrassment and humiliation of seeing her husband paraded through town in handcuffs.
“I’m so sorry, darlin’,” he murmured regretfully, “didn’t want ya to hafta see me like this.”
“Is it true what everyone is saying?” she asked softly, her eyes wide with fear. “Did you nearly kill Horace?”
How humbling it was to have to acknowledge that, in all honesty, he didn’t know. He’d been so out of it, so lost in his dark thoughts, so…blinded by his anger that he’d only been half aware of what was going on. But, based on the seriousness of the situation he now found himself in, it had to be true.
Her sharp intake of breath and look of disappointment cut him to the quick. “I don’t understand, Hank…” She peered up at him with desolation in her eyes. “Why?”
How could he explain something he didn’t fully comprehend himself? No words could adequately express all that he’d been feeling in those terrifying moments when he’d lost control. The shame and fear and horror rose up in him anew. Shame for what had happened to him, fear of it being discovered, and horror for breaking down like he had in front of Michaela.
Unable to answer Julia’s question, he pulled out of her embrace and walked away, as with how he was currently feeling, he didn’t want her anywhere near.
Her anguished cry rang out behind him, but he kept right on marching towards the clinic. The crowd of people parted for him like the Red Sea, creating a wide pathway for him to walk through as they stared at him condemningly. He glared right back, challenging them with his eyes to dare speak a damn word. If they did they’d be sorry.
Just try it an’ see.
“Hank, wait!” Julia called out again. “Please!”
“Let him go, Julia…” At the sound of Michaela’s voice, he stiffened, overwhelmed by a flash of rage and the sudden urge to turn and cause her bodily harm. He breathed through it, somehow managing to hold on to his rapidly dissolving restraint.
“I know you’re upset, and you have every right to be,” the doctor was saying, “but the best thing you can do for him now is to let him go so he can question Horace.”
Hank heard a broken sob and knew that it had come from his wife. All of the anger left him then, something inside him softening at the sound of her despair.
Revenge had always been the thing that drove him. For years, he’d done nothing but eat, sleep and breathe it. But, it seemed he’d finally found the one thing worth more to him than the pleasure he might get from making someone pay.
Love had him in its clutches, as when compared with Julia’s suffering, his need for vengeance didn’t seem to matter anymore. He stared at the wooden door of the clinic, not daring to turn and face the watching crowd, as he felt on the verge of breaking down, too.
“I promise to do everything in my power to ensure Hank doesn’t suffer drastic consequences for this,” Michaela added gently. “Trust me, Julia…I don’t wish for this to end badly any more than you do.”
“C’mon, doll,” came Ruby’s cheerful urging. “Lemme help ya up to yer room, an’ then I’ll get ya that bath.”
Another mournful sob stabbed Hank’s heart as surely as if it’d been a knife’s blade. He felt a presence beside him, and turned to find Daniel.
“Don’t look at me,” the sheriff countered in response to his dark scowl. “This was yer idea, remember?”
“Not the cuffs.”
Daniel’s lips thinned. “After what ya did to Horace, think I got a right to be cautious.”
“One minute,” Hank found himself pleading. “Lemme take ‘im off fer one minute…just long ‘nough to calm my wife.”
Daniel’s eyes darted over to the inconsolable Julia. Hank still hadn’t turned, but he could hear her sobs, as well as Ruby’s unsuccessful attempt to soothe her. He watched the sheriff’s face, waiting for his expression to soften, hoping against hope that it would. Impatience stirred within him, as she cried in earnest now, and the sound was enough to break his heart.
With a heavy sigh, Daniel reached into his pocket and pulled out a key, staring down at it a long while before finally glancing back up at Hank. “You swear not to try anythin’, an’ not to fight me when it’s time to put ‘em back on?”
Relieved, Hank nodded. “On my unborn child’s life.”
That must have been the right answer, for Daniel moved to unlock the handcuffs. “I’m trustin’ ya,” he warned as he pulled away the cold, hard steel. “Don’t make me regret it.”
Hank didn’t answer, as with his shackles removed and freedom restored, his only concern was for Julia. He turned and crossed the few steps to where she stood, and without a word, lifted her into his arms. She peered up at him with red-rimmed eyes, her look of surprise quickly turning to one of bittersweet joy.
“I’m huggin’ ya back,” he whispered, contentment settling over him as her hands slipped once more around his neck. Her response was a kiss so fierce and possessive, he felt it wrap around his heart, binding him with as much power as any pair of handcuffs. When at last she pulled her mouth away, it was only to shower his face and neck with kisses. Her fingers stroked his hair and the whiskers on his cheek, her sobs growing even louder than before.
Someone cleared their throat, and Hank glanced up to find Daniel holding open the door of the clinic. With a short nod of thanks, he walked through, carrying his wife inside, up the stairs, and down the hall to her room. He crossed to the bed and sat down upon it, hoping to console her a bit before he had to leave her there. Her sobs had died down to soft whimpers, but she clung to him even more tightly than before.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement, and glancing up towards the doorway, he found a patiently waiting Ruby, Daniel, and Michaela.
Ruby stepped forward, looking quite guilty. “I’m so sorry, Hank,” she whispered. “I’s gonna tell ‘er, but that ol’ hag Dorothy beat me to it.”
He put a finger to his lips, not wanting her to upset Julia, who’d finally started to settle down.
“Bout that time, darlin’,” he murmured gently, and as expected, her protest was immediate.
“Don’t leave me,” she wept into his neck. “Please, don’t go…”
He didn’t know if she meant right at that moment, or his trip to Mississippi, or forever, but no matter her intention, her mournful plea cut deep. Tears stung his own eyes, as he knew that he would have to let her down.
“Go on,” Ruby whispered beside him. “Leave ‘er to me…you go an’ get yerself outta this mess.”
Another glance at Daniel and Michaela, and he knew that it was time. Time to roll the dice. So much was at stake. His entire future. He only hoped this gamble would pay off.
A fierce determination swept through him. To hell with hope. He was a man of action, and right then and there, he swore to do whatever it took to avoid the hangman’s noose. He finally had a life worth living. He wasn’t about to let it go without a fight.
“I ain’t gonna leave you,” he vowed, lifting Julia’s chin to look her in the eye. “Not fer good. I swear…I’ll make it outta this alive.”
Her smile was tentative, as if she were afraid to hope. “Promise?”
He nodded, kissing her sweet lips one final time before passing her over to Ruby. As he stood and walked to the door, he was greeted by Michaela’s stern scowl.
“You shouldn’t have promised her that,” she scolded after they’d stepped out of the room and she’d closed the door. “You have no way of knowing what the future holds.”
“I ain’t hangin’ fer this,” he shot back, more determined than ever to fight. “I’ll run first. I’d rather be an outlaw the rest o’ my life if it means I’ll still have a life. If it means I’ll still have Julia.”
“I’d come after ya, you know,” Daniel interjected, his tone holding a soft warning.
Hank shrugged, not frightened in the least. “You’d try.”
“This conversation could all be for naught, gentleman,” Michaela pointed out as she led them down the hall, stopping in front of a closed door. “Perhaps we should go in and speak to Horace first before any drastic measures are taken.”
“What’re we waitin’ on?” Tired of the suspense, Hank was ready to take action.
“Before we go inside,” the doctor replied, “I feel it only fair to warn you that Horace’s condition is very serious.”
“I should hope so, bein’ as how I’m being charged with his attempted murder.”
Michaela narrowed her eyes in rebuke. “His external injuries are quite severe, but it’s the internal injuries that have me the most concerned.” Her expression grew grave. “He has several cracked, possibly broken ribs, and due to his intense pain and irregular breathing, I’m concerned he may have a punctured lung.”
Hank didn’t reply, knowing it was probably in his best interest.
“Aside from the physical injuries,” she went on, “Horace seems very…disturbed. He’s not in his right mind.”
“I coulda told ya that,” Hank countered. “He pretty much begged me to kill ‘im.”
The doctor frowned. “What did he say?”
Now it was Hank’s turn to frown. “He told me to go ahead an’ kill ‘im,” he answered, trying to remember exactly what Horace had said. “Asked me to put ‘im outta his misery, once’n fer all.”
“And this happened during your altercation earlier?”
Hank nodded. “Right after he tore up my letter.”
“To which you have no witnesses,” Daniel annoyingly reminded. “Sides, I hardly think tearin’ up a letter is some sorta crime.”
“With Horace being Postmaster for Colorado Springs,” Michaela interjected, “it very well could be. I’ll ask Matthew to check the laws regarding such matters.”
“Well, unless you can get Horace to confess,” Daniel added, looking at Hank, “it’s his word ‘gainst yers.”
Hank shot the sheriff an angry glare. “Don’t ya think I know that? Why the hell else would I ask to question ‘im?”
Michaela held up her hand. “Enough. Let’s go in and see what happens. Keep in mind that he’s heavily sedated. He may or may not want to talk.”
As she opened the door, Hank found himself holding his breath. This was it…the moment of truth. If Horace didn’t come clean or agree to drop the charges, he didn’t know what he’d do. To talk of running was easy….but to accomplish it would be a much harder feat.
Taking a cautious step inside the room, Hank stared at the person lying in the bed a few feet away. The face that greeted him was battered and bruised. Beaten beyond recognition. In spite of the doctor’s warning, he couldn’t help but be shocked by the gruesome sight. He found himself feeling guilty as well, as it was he who’d caused such damage—even if Horace was a spineless coward who’d refused to fight back.
The word ‘coward’ echoed in Hank’s brain, a silent condemnation. He’d always hated Horace for his weakness, but never wanted to admit the reason why. The truth was, he loathed any sort of frailty in others because it reminded him of his own humiliating weakness. Every time he looked at Horace, he saw himself as a boy. A boy who’d always given in. A boy who’d never had the gumption to stand up.
“Horace…” Michaela spoke, bringing Hank back to the present. The doctor took a seat in the chair beside the bed. “How are you feeling?”
Though his eyes were nearly swollen shut, Horace cracked them open just enough to stare at her.
She pressed a hand to his forehead and frowned. “You’re sweating profusely…do you need something more for the pain?”
Horace shook his head.
“I know you’re resting,” the doctor added, “but it’s very important that you speak with Hank. We, well…Daniel needs to know the whole story of what went on.”
For the first time, Horace seemed to notice Hank and Daniel were present in the room. His eyes flickered over to the sheriff before settling on Hank, leveling him with a hard stare. All of a sudden, Horace coughed, wincing and moaning in obvious pain.
In that moment, all of Hank’s plans to interrogate his longtime adversary, to demand he tell the real reason he was lying in that bed, went right out the window. Instead of loathing Horace for being weak and a coward, Hank discovered he only felt pity.
Hank was just as surprised as everyone else in the room when the words exited his mouth. Yet, oddly enough, he wouldn’t take them back. They were an accurate reflection of what was in his heart.
“Know ya prob’ly don’t believe me,” he went on, “bein’ as how yer lyin’ in that bed.”
The room grew still, the four people present within uttering not a single word.
“Course I don’t believe it,” Horace finally answered. Though his lips were badly swollen and his breaths sounded like ragged gasps, he could still get his point across. “After all the years you’ve made my life a living hell, I’m supposed to believe you’ve changed?”
Hank cleared his throat. “I never meant to hurt ya this badly,” he admitted. “Just sorta happened that way.”
Horace said nothing.
“I’s angry to begin with, an’ then when you tore up Nana’s letter, I just lost it.”
Horace still kept quiet. Obviously he wasn’t going to come clean.
Hank took a deep breath. “Know I ain’t got no right to ask this, but I’m gonna anyway. My Nana…she’s dyin’, Horace. I gotta leave tomorrow, so I can say goodbye.” He blinked back the tears blurring his eyes. “After all she done fer me, I owe ‘er at least that.”
When Horace still didn’t say anything, Hank shot Michaela a questioning look. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
“I know you’ve been hurt badly,” she spoke up, touching Horace gently on the shoulder, “but the truth is, I’m the one who angered Hank before he ran into you. I’m partly responsible for your condition.”
Horace shook his head. “No, Dr. Mike. This ain’t none o’ yer doin’…”
“Oh, but it is,” she insisted. “So I must ask you, for my sake…will you drop the charges? I’m sure it’s difficult for you to be sympathetic, being as how you’re in such terrible pain, but if you don’t let Hank go, he won’t get to say goodbye.”
The room was quiet save for Horace’s raspy breaths. “Myra…” he spoke at last. “She woulda wanted me to let ya go…”
Relief washed over Hank. Thank God.
“Yes,” Michaela agreed. “I feel certain you’re right.”
“When she was my wife,” Horace mused, “I always gave in to what she wanted. Always. Every single time…”
Hank’s heart sank. Wherever Horace was going with this, it couldn’t be good.
“But what Myra wants don’t much matter anymore,” Horace added sadly. “She ain’t my wife now.”
“No, she’s not,” Michaela admitted, “but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re still a good man.”
Instead of his expression softening, Horace’s face twisted into a scowl.
“Did ya know she’s ‘bout to get remarried?”
Michaela shook her head. “I’m afraid I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Real nice fella. Rich, too. He’s president o’ the bank where she works.”
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor announced sympathetically. “I’m sure that news was very difficult for you.”
“Samantha’s real taken with ‘im… Calls ‘im Pa.”
“Oh, Horace,” Michaela took his hand in hers and squeezed it. “I know that must hurt a great deal.”
“They’re a happy little family now.” Horace turned to glare at Hank. “Yer happy now too, ain’t ya. Got yerself that pretty little wife.”
“Yeah,” Hank acknowledged, unable to lie. “I’m happy.”
“Everybody’s happy,” Horace mumbled bitterly. “Everybody ’cep me.”
“You can be happy again, too, Horace,” Michaela assured softly. “Just give it time.”
“Only one thing would make me happy…” Horace kept his eyes trained on Hank. “…an’ that’s to see you dead.”
Suddenly, Hank found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. Oh, shit.
“Horace, no!” Michaela gasped. “How did you get that? I hid it away clear across the room! You got out of bed for it?”
Horace nodded. “Hurt like hell…still does, but that won’t matter here in just a little bit.”
“Horace…” Daniel spoke for the first time since entering the room. “Put the gun down.”
Hank didn’t dare turn, but he was suddenly never more grateful to have Daniel Simon around. Surely the sheriff now had his gun aimed at Horace. One could hope.
“I almost killed ya once before,” Horace confessed to Hank, ignoring Michaela and Daniel’s warnings. “Did ya know that?”
Hank shook his head. His heart was pounding so fast. He could wrestle the gun away from Horace, but he wasn’t sure he could do it without blowing a hole in his gut.
“It was after ya tried to shoot Myra,” Horace confessed. “You were lyin’ in bed in that coma, an’ I aimed a gun to yer head.” His expression grew cold and hard. “Shoulda pulled the trigger.”
“You did the right thing by lowering the gun, Horace,” Michaela interjected, her face as white as a sheet. “Just as you’ll do the right thing now.” She extended her hand. “Give me the gun.”
Horace gave a tired little laugh. “I’ve always done the right thing…” His smile twisted into a bitter scowl. “But you,” he snarled at Hank, cocking the hammer, “you ain’t never done the right thing a day in yer life.”
“Horace, fer the last time,” Daniel boomed out. “Drop the gun!”
Before Hank knew what was happening, Horace had fired the gun at Daniel, hitting he knew not where. With a gasp, Michaela immediately ran to Daniel’s side.
“He alright?” he croaked, not wanting to turn to see for himself and take his eyes off Horace.
“Shot to the shoulder,” came Michaela’s frantic response. “The bullet’s lodged! I need to get him downstairs so I can operate!”
Hank stared at Horace. Gone was the pity. If he didn’t wrestle that gun away from the man, and soon, someone could die. But how?
“What d’ya want, Horace,” he asked as slowly and as calmly as he could.
“What do I want? I want love. A family. Happiness. Everythin’ you got.”
“This ain’t the right way to get it.”
“Oh, but I’m thinkin’ it is,” Horace snarled. “See, you got everythin’, an’ I got nothin’. Now tell me, where’s the justice in that?”
“Ain’t justice,” Hank countered. “Just pure luck.”
Horace snorted. “Hafta agree with you there. You certainly don’t deserve it.”
“Don’t deserve to die, neither.”
“I was real disappointed in ya, Hank…”
Hank took a small step towards the bed, his mind working to formulate a way out of this. “Yeah? Why?”
“Thought you were gonna solve all my problems,” Horace rasped. “You were supposed to kill me. But like always, you were selfish. You never think o’ anyone but yerself.”
Hank stared blankly at Horace. “I’s selfish by not takin’ yer life?”
“If you’d killed me, you woulda fixed everythin’: ended my miserable life, an’ yers, too. They woulda hung you.”
Horace’s smile was pure evil. “Forgive me if I don’t leave that up to chance.” With a look of determination, he took careful aim at Hank’s chest. “Say yer prayers…”
This is it, Hank thought. This is the end. Images of Julia flashed through his mind, of their baby, of the life they would never have. I love ya, Julia. Always will.
Well. Just a reminder, in "Before the Dawn", Horace tries to kill himself TWICE...once by downing two bottles of Laudanum, and the second time he held a gun to his head. The entire episode, even up to the very end, he couldn't shake his depression...he even missed the wedding vow renewal ceremony, giving Myra signed divorce papers. Then Samantha asks him if he'd visit her on her birthday, and he miraculously makes a recovery, telling Dr. Mike he's not going to that private sanitarium where they decided he should get help. Forgive me if I felt that a bit too neat and tidy to be resolved. So this is what I think could have happened, especially if Myra moved on, which she surely would have. If Horace thought he'd lost Myra, and Samantha too, I think it would have been more than enough for him to snap.