Jason Cahill sat in front of his stone fireplace on a bitter cold January night, a medical book in his hands. But every few minutes he would glance up at the clock on the mantel.
A minute later he looked sideways at the front door. “What is taking so long?” he murmured. At almost the same time he had spoken these words, there was a loud rap on the door. Jason stood up quickly and unlocked it. Outside, a full moon at their backs, two tall men in ankle-length coats and Stetsons waited. Between them they carried something long and heavy, concealed in a canvas bag.
No words were spoken as they brought their burden inside and moved with short, quick steps into a small side room. They laid the canvas bag on a table, which stood behind a green baize curtain running from one end of the room to the other. Still not speaking, the two men pulled off the canvas bag to reveal a human body with no shirt on.
“To the end he claimed he was the wrong man,” the older of the two said. “Swore he was innocent.” The corner of the man's mouth turned up as though this was something he'd heard more than once. “But he died like a man, sir.”
A moment later the two body bearers left, and Jason bolted the door after them. For perhaps a minute he stood by the fireplace watching the logs burn. Doctor Jason Cahill was the only physician in Hastings, a town squeezed into a bleak corner of northwestern Kansas. He had turned twenty-eight the day before on January 20, 1886.
Returning to the room he gazed down at the body. The man was perhaps slightly under six feet, possibly thirty years of age, and almost handsome. It struck Jason that the dead man's face had an appearance of serenity, not usual for someone strangled by a rope. Around his neck was the stain of a faint blue circle where the hangman's noose had tightened. A vile murder had been committed five months before.
Jason continued to study the corpse. All he really knew about the man was that he had been poor and friendless. For that reason he had arrived at Jason Cahill's house.
He set the candle beside the instrument box next to the dissecting table and, rolling up his sleeves, opened the box and pulled out a long, thin bladed knife. As he placed the knife against the chest of the dead murderer, Jason caught his breath and stepped back quickly. He was certain the corpse had shuddered, if only slightly.
Then the dead man's eyelids quivered. Jason knew right then that the man who had supposedly died on the scaffold only a few hours before was still alive. He immediately worked to revive the man. Twenty minutes later the murderer was sitting upright on the table and swallowed the brandy that Jason held to his lips.
As the man's understanding slowly returned, he gazed at Jason with haunted eyes. “Thank God, I was not buried alive.” He clutched the doctor's arm. “You will not have me taken back to prison. Will you not be merciful?”
Jason pulled his arm away. “Richard Bass, you were found guilty of murder. Only by the most careless mistake were you cut down before life had slipped from you. I have a duty to give you up to justice.”
“I am an innocent man,” Bass nearly wailed. “No murder rests upon my soul, for God sakes.”
“The court found you guilty of the crime.”
“I was damned on evidence completely circumstantial. I did not murder anyone.” Richard Bass clutched his head in his hands, his breathing was now labored and raspy.
Jason neither moved nor said anything as he watched this man; he had an uncompromising responsibility he told himself, regardless of the cruel circumstances. The expression on the body bearer's face had indicated what he thought of pleas of innocence from men condemned to be hanged. Yet, there was something about this man that made Jason Cahill hesitate.
Bass looked up and fixed his eyes on Jason. “Don't give me up. Give me my freedom. Let me leave, and this shall remain between us. I say again, I am an innocent man. The time will come when you and all the world shall be convinced of the fact. The mercy you showed me will be repaid one day.”
Jason looked away for a moment, not certain what to do. He turned back and contemplated the man sitting on the edge of the dissecting table. His face was drawn and haggard, but his eyes did not flinch. “I am strangely forced to believe your declaration that you are an innocent man.”
Richard Bass fell upon his knees before the young doctor.
* * * *
It was one week to the New Year. Eight years had gone by. Six years before, Jason had married, and he and his young wife left for California to work in a small city where a promising opportunity had come open. One year after settling in their new home, his wife gave birth to a beautiful girl. Jason's medical practice grew and life held infinite promise.
But then a colleague of his convinced him of the “astonishing” financial opportunities in gold and silver speculation. Being naturally cautious, he invested a small amount of money and doubled his investment in five months. At that point Jason abandoned all heedfulness and invested nearly their entire savings. Overvalued silver brought about a drastic decline in gold reserves, which in turn caused the panic of 1893, and destroyed thousands of people like Jason, leaving them penniless.
As he shuffled up the broken stairs and opened the door to the rundown room on a dirty side street near the waterfront, he thought for a brief moment what might have been. But then his thoughts turned to his sleeping wife and child in the bed. Their pinched, ashen faces clearly indicated the poverty and privation that was now their lot.
At that moment his wife awoke and whispered so as not to wake the child. “Were you successful?”
Jason's eyes dimmed with tears. He shook his head. “My friend refused to lend me any money.”
“But you had given him money once when he needed it,” his wife said in anguish.
Jason was unable to answer. His so called friends, now that he was poverty striken, had abandoned him, had turned their backs on him, had forgotten him. Those who did require his medical services could not pay.
Early the following morning, while his wife still slept fitfully, Jason picked up his daughter, whose fever had still not broken. He knew he might not have the strength to go on if anything happened to her. There was a knock on the door. Putting the child back down beside her mother, Jason opened the door. A man waited outside. He was muffled up so completely that hardly more than his eyes could be seen. “Doctor Cahill?”
Jason nodded slowly. “I am Doctor Cahill.” At that the stranger grabbed Jason's hand firmly and shook it.
Before Jason could react, this mysterious person pulled out a small metal box from under his cloak along with a folded newspaper and handed both of them to Jason. “Before you open the box, sir, I wish you to read the marked piece of news on the first page of the paper.” At that, he turned quickly and disappeared down the stairs.
Jason closed the door and placed the metal box on the table. When he opened the paper and found the article he gasped out loud: Joshua Dobbins, formerly of Hastings, Kansas passed away.... He reread the article a second time before dropping the paper on the table. Joshua Dobbins, shortly before he died, confessed to the murder that Richard Bass had been convicted of and “sent to the scaffold.”
Jason lifted the cover of the small box and found a folded sheet of paper. But when he picked it up he noticed something else wrapped in brown paper beneath it. On the sheet of paper was written:
“Dear Doctor Cahill, You now know that the man who swore his innocence to you eight years before spoke God's holy truth. For your faith in me, I shall be eternally grateful. That I can be of service to you in your dark hour is the very least I can do. The metal box contains the sum of ten thousand dollars for you and your family. I shall pay you a visit in two days. In your debt forever. Richard Bass.”
Three days went by and Bass did not return. Jason of course did not have any idea how to locate him, but he remembered the note was written on stationery with the address of a bank across town. The following day he went to the bank and asked if anyone knew a Richard Bass. A young clerk asked Jason to wait. The clerk disappeared into an office.
Within a minute an older man appeared who introduced himself as an officer of the bank. “You're looking for Mr. Bass?”
Jason said he was.
“Richard Bass from San Francisco?”
Jason replied that he'd not seen his friend for many years and did not know he lived in San Francisco, a good hundred miles away.
At that point the banker guided Jason to a quiet corner of the bank. “Naturally, we are all shocked about what happened. Mr. Bass, being a wealthy investor, was one of our largest customers in our main bank in San Francisco. What is happening in this country?”
Jason held up his hand. “I don't understand. Where is Mr. Bass?”
“You … do not know?”
“Why that Mr. Bass was murdered four days ago, near the waterfront by two thugs. No one knows why he was in that part of the city.”
Jason did not listen to the rest of what the bank officer said.
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