The branch from which the hanging rope was tethered shattered with a dry, splintering crack. The crowd let in a collective gasp, and the trailhand thudded to the platform’s unforgiving wooden surface.
Moments passed in which the trailhand was not sure whether he was alive or dead. He wanted to touch the tanned skin of his neck, to make sure that the sudden tightening of the noose had not broken the bones beneath. But his hands remained bound behind his back.
The trailhand struggled to his knees, realizing as he did so that his eyes were shut tight. He opened them and saw red liquid falling from his mouth in thick, slow-moving strings. He tasted the hot iron tang of blood, and concluded that his impact with the gallows had driven his front teeth through the soft flesh of his tongue.
The crowd watched him in stunned silence. Deputy Kyle looked sidelong at Sheriff Manfred, unsure of how to proceed. The Sheriff looked nonplussed. The silence hanging over the sleepy Missouri town mounted to a boiling point, and the trailhand in his confusion and pain wished that someone would break it.
Someone did. The crowd began to mutter as a man pushed his way through the ranks. He was a short man, thin and pale, with a neat mustache perched upon a trembling upper lip. The crowd let in another collective gasp as the small man reached into a breast pocket and produced a gun.
The gun was a tiny thing, a derringer with a burnished steel barrel and a smooth faux-ivory handle. It looked like the sort of weapon a saloon girl kept tucked in her stockings in case her patrons became too friendly. But small though it was, it was a gun. Deputy Kyle moved into action, stepping in front of the trailhand’s crouched form and holding up a pair of weathered hands.
“Now Tomjon,” he said in the tone of a man dealing with someone unreasonable. “There isn’t any need for that.”
But the man called Tomjon only raised the tiny pistol, his pale face a quivering mask of rage. Deputy Kyle kept one hand held out, but the other moved to the clutch beneath his armpit in one slow, smooth motion.
“Stop and think of what you’re doing, Mr. Stokes,” said Sheriff Manfred. “Don’t be unreasonable. The boy will still hang, you can set your watch on it.”
The trailhand glimpsed the man through the gap between the deputy’s legs. He recognized him with dawning clarity as husband and father to the woman and girl who had died.
“What difference does it make?” asked Tomjon Stokes through clenched teeth. “He’s dead either way.”
“The difference is that we are God-fearing folk here,” said the Sheriff. “And God-fearing folk don’t put men down like sick dogs.”
Tomjon looked unconvinced. Deputy Kyle’s thumb flicked upward in an imperceptible motion, unclasping the clutch and freeing the butt of his pistol.
Tomjon took a final step forward. He straightened the arm clutching the derringer, and the trailhand saw the tell-tale whitening of the knuckles which precedes the squeezing of a trigger.