The Gallows: Part III

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.

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The Gallows: Part II

Thomas Jonathan Stokes, “Tomjon” to his friends, had witnessed several hangings in his lifetime. Most times they were short affairs. If the convict was lucky, and they often were, the fall would break his neck and snuff him out in an instant.

Sometimes they were more gruesome. On one occasion in Tomjon’s youth, the local constabulary had rounded up a group of Kansas outlaws and done them in all at once. All but one died on the drop. The one who didn’t had hung there, feet kicking and face purpling for what felt like an age. When he died, his eyes had remained open in a glassy stare of terror, shot through with broken blood vessels and void of light and color.

So when Tomjon Stokes gathered with the townsfolk of Beacon, Missouri before the gallows at high noon on a warm day in July, he did so knowing that he could expect one of two types of hangings: the quick kind, or the ugly kind.

He hoped for the ugly kind.

The bastard boy they called “the trailhand” stood upon a stool with the rope tied about his throat in a slack loop and the other end wound tightly round the thickest branch of the hanging tree. Edwin Kyle, the sheriff’s deputy, stood to the boy’s right. Father Delaney stood on the platform too, reading from the twenty-third Psalm in his droning monotone.

When the reading was done, Sheriff Manfred lugged himself up to the boy’s other side. The steps of the gallows creaked beneath his weight. At a nod from his superior, Deputy Kyle stepped forward and began to read from a sheet of paper.

“Roy Lathrop, you have been tried and convicted by a jury of your peers for the murders of Mrs. Winifred Stokes and her daughter, Rose.”

My Winnie, thought Tomjon. And my Rosie. The tears came and he damned them for coming, damned them for threatening to obscure his view, for trying to rob him of his taste of justice.

“You are thus sentenced to hang from your neck until you are dead,” Deputy Kyle finished.

Tomjon heard Sheriff Manfred mutter something to the boy, who looked up and began to speak in a timid voice.

“I never killed no one,” the trailhand said.

In an instant Tomjon’s grief morphed back into blinding rage. He did not realize he was picking up the rock, did not realize he was throwing it until it was done. The throw was a good distance, and Tomjon had never been a marksman. The stone went a little wide and struck the trailhand’s shoulder. The boy seemed hardly to register the pain, but seeing the rock find its mark still granted Tomjon a brief jolt of satisfaction.

Tomjon wiped at his watery eyes with the sleeve of his shirt in a rapid motion, not wanting to miss a single thing. He watched with mounting excitement as the sheriff strode forward to face the boy. He placed a heavy boot upon the stool and pushed.

Tomjon’s heart skipped a beat.

The Gallows: Part I

It was high noon when the time came. The sun beat down on the ramshackle wooden platform in an unrelenting glare. The townsfolk gathered in the shadow of the gallows, listening to the man in black with the white collar read from his old leather book. Many of them had removed their hats and were mopping at their shining brows. They looked upon the trailhand through eyes squinted against the sun.

The rope’s coarse fibers chafed at his neck, causing it to itch. He considered asking the deputy standing beside him on the platform to scratch it for him, but the man’s stern gaze advised against it. The deputy wore a shining metal badge pinned to his vest and a pearl-handled six-shooter in a clutch beneath his left armpit. He was a hard man, an officer of the law through and through.

Sheriff Manfred was a different story. He was getting on in his forties or early fifties; a gleaming bald patch sat amid the salt-and-pepper hair on his head and a rotund gut threatened to spill over his brass belt buckle. The man’s cheeks always glowed with a boyish redness, and his lips never looked far from a smile.

But he wore a frown as he ascended the platform, and looked upon the trailhand with an expression resembling pity. The preacher had finished his sermon, and at a nod from the sheriff, Deputy Kyle produced a folded sheet of paper from his breast pocket. He unfolded it and began to read aloud in a sharp, brittle voice.

“Roy Lathrop,” he called, “You have been tried and convicted by a jury of your peers for the murders of Mrs. Winifred Stokes and her daughter, Rose. You are thus sentenced to hang from your neck until you are dead.”

The deputy folded the paper once more and returned it to his pocket. The sheriff’s round, kindly face looked upward to where the trailhand, for that was what everyone called him, stood upon a four-legged stool with a length of rope secured beneath his chin.

“If you have last words, now’s the time to speak ’em,” said the sheriff.

The trailhand raised his head and looked about. He was a young man. A smattering of teenage acne still clung to his tanned face. His hair was a thick and wiry red. His eyes were blue and wet.

“I never killed no one,” he muttered, looking in turn at each of the faces in the gathering crowd. “Honest, I never did.”

“Liar!” someone shouted.

“Baby killer!” screamed another. The trailhand felt something hard glance off his shoulder and realized someone had thrown a rock.

He hung his head and waited, listening to the heavy footfalls as someone–Sheriff Manfred or Deputy Kyle–approached. Through his silent tears he saw a boot come to rest upon the stool, saw it give a half-hearted shove. The stool began to fall, and with that, the trailhand plummeted.

The Writing Hand

The notebook was an old and faded thing. Someone had torn out a good many of its college-ruled pages in clean and precise strokes. The remaining perforated strips clung to the cold metal spiral in a neat little stack. Where the full pages began, the paper was brittle and yellow with age. They gave soft, dry whispers as he rifled toward the final sheet.

The words printed on it in tiny cursive handwriting sent shivers running along the length of his spine. The ink was a deep and acid green, the kind of quality that only a fountain pen could have produced. His mother had loved fountain pens, and detested writing utensils of any other kind. A sad smile split his features as he remembered her many loud discourses on the shortcomings of ball points.

He remembered how the ink had sometimes stained her hands, the green seeping into the wrinkles and crevices in her aging skin. He remembered her disdain for untidy penmanship. He remembered her calligraphy–the long and smooth strokes she made on thick, textured paper.

Her last message saddened him, but not because it was her last message. It saddened him to see, in his mind’s eye, the shaking of her hand as she wrote it. It saddened him to imagine the frustration clouding her eyes as she failed to keep the pen steady, as she struggled to stay inside the sky-blue lines. The doctors were wrong to think her mind had been the last to go–it had been her hand. The untidy scrawl on the page was not his mother’s, or not really. It was Death’s.

The tears fell unbidden as he read the message over and over. The yellowed paper drank them with all the eagerness of a desert floor drinking the first drops of a late summer rain. His mother’s voice filled his head, reading the words for him when his eyes became too blurry to see them.

“I loved you,” his mother said. And in his mind her voice was soft, and young, and hers. “Here at the end, I loved you.”

 

.38

The gun felt heavy in his hand. It was an old gun, a .38 snub nose. Scuffs and scratches coated its steel barrel. Hairline cracks ran the length of the mother-of-pearl handle.  He doubted he could hit the broad side of a barn with it at any distance. But close quarters were a different story.

He raised the gun and squeezed the cold trigger. The gun roared, splitting the cold night air in two. The force of the blast kicked his shoulder back a little, and the gun’s barrel sprang upward of its own volition. In the aftermath, tendrils of smoke wafted from the .38’s blunt tip like warm breath from a man’s lungs on a winter morning.

His target crumpled to the ground, the hat toppling from its head and coming to rest its brim in the growing waters of an alleyway puddle. The blood pooling beneath his fallen quarry was not blood at all, but something like it—a thick red fluid like something from a car’s transmission.

“You shot me,” the dying thing said. Its voice gave an electronic warble. It looked up into its killer’s eyes. They wore the same face, down to the stubble along the jawline and the thick, handlebar mustache coating the upper lip. “I—I was you.”

The man with the gun raised it once more, leveling it at the thing’s hollow chest. “A poor copy,” he said. And he emptied the .38. Sparks flew. The night grew even colder.