A Hanging

Anders listened to the creak of the boards on the wagon, and the stamp of the horses’ hooves as they tramped through ruts made hard from an early frost. He watched his own horse blowing steamy breath through its nose, and felt its flanks shift under the saddle blanket, heat rising up into his thighs. The men arrayed around him rode easily almost carefree, rifles laid across their laps. It was a lie any man would know looking at their faces. Hard eyes, set mouths. Yet even there, another lie, deeper. He looked at the trees, bare from a hard autumn, and sighed.

They kept a wide berth from him and the wagon. Respectful distance, some might call it. But Anders knew the truth. You didn’t call a preacher to the wilderness unless a man was dying, or destined to be so. He knew the names they called him under their breath. Rook. Vulture. Rattlebones. For them, it was bad luck of a sort. They’d made their peace with the land, since God hadn’t yet, and to invite one of His own was like letting a fox into a henhouse.

A crow flapped from a nearby branch, startling him in the saddle, and the appaloosa under him shied to one side. He took the reins in hand and brought her back to the path, but not before snorts of amusement from the posse reached his ears. He glanced over at the man in the wagon, glad at least, and God forgive him, there was another they had less of an opinion of than him. He glanced over at the prisoner, struggling with a moment of indecision, then steered his horse over, toward the man in the lead, a lean man with a wide-brimmed hat and a stern set to his mouth. A star sat on his chest, a symbol of his authority, complement to Anders’ collar. He tilted his head as he came alongside.

“Bill.”

Bill nodded back. “Pastor. How can I help you?”

Anders swallowed. He didn’t feel up to the task—it had been a hard cold ride, and these were hard cold men. And frankly, he preferred the confines of his warm chapel in Redwood. He wondered sometimes if it had been God or the stipend that called him to service, and whether he would have answered either if someone told him he’d be ministering to the lowest in creation. Still, the good Lord helped those who helped themselves, and hated a coward, platitude, cliché. He cleared his throat.

“I’d like to talk to the prisoner.”

Bill grunted. “He lies.”

“Everyone lies,” Anders said. “He still deserves a chance to come clean before he stands at the feet of his God.”

Bill blew a breath out, white and misty in the morning air. “Be my guest, Pastor.  I’m just here to arrange the meeting.”

Anders turned his horse, its hooves scuffling on the hard trail, and headed to the back of the procession. The sun hadn’t quite broken the horizon, and night held to the early hours like a wolf worrying a bone. He nodded to Withers, the man driving the wagon, and passed by the clapboard sides. Frost rimed the wood, and the prisoner shivered a little, though from cold or circumstance, he couldn’t be sure. It’s a hard thing, knowing the time and place of your death, Anders imagined. Harder still knowing it was coming with the sun. He wheeled his mount around again, and pulled into a steady walk beside the creaking wheels.

The man in the back of the wagon was thin and ragged, a wiry beard sprouting from a weak chin. A smell cut through the scents of warm horseflesh and hay as Anders drew close, and he wrinkled his nose despite an attempt to appear dignified. The man smelled of sweat and spoiled meat and blood, a sickly-sweet copper odor clinging to him. He was pale, blue veins peeking through here and there just below the surface of his white flesh. He lifted sunken eyes from behind wire-rim round glasses and gave Anders a mournful look. Anders shivered, and thought it the look of a man who’d seen more than his mind could contain, and only wished for it to be stripped away like an undertaker removing offal from viscera.

He opened his mouth, intending to address the prisoner, and the wind picked up. It rattled the bare branches around them and sent leaves skittering across the trail, the sound like claws on wood. The prisoner cringed and raised his hands as if to ward off a blow, the chains that shackled him jingling as he did so. After a moment, when it was clear there was no blow or attack coming, the man lowered his chains and hung his head again. The sudden movement sent Anders’ heart skipping, and he took a moment to calm himself, so his voice didn’t waver. When his confidence returned—because who could say what this man was capable of—he cleared his throat, as if preparing to discuss the latest news from St. Louis.

“You fear the wind, Mister-” Anders asked.

“Hart. And yes.” Hart refused to meet his eyes, scanning the tree line.

He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens. And by His power He directed the south wind,” Anders quoted.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Hart asked.

Anders shrugged. “It’s a reminder. God controls the wind. It’s His hand that stirs the leaves on the bough, the face of the water. And where there is God, there is nothing to fear.”

Hart’s eyes roved. Paused. Roved. He stared into the woods for a moment, and then turned to Anders. “I’m not sure He’s made it out this way yet, pastor.”

“Why is that, Mr. Hart? You know of course, God is in all things.”

 “Whose god?”

Anders pursed his lips. “You seem to have struggled with this Mr. Hart.” He looked ahead, at the path that wound into the woods and toward their inevitable destination. The track rose gently, leading them upwards. At its peak, a crooked finger of timber, and a rope, open to the sky. Maybe they thought building it there would allow God’s judgment to fall more easily on the guilty. Maybe it just kept the stink of the dead upwind. He shook himself. “You have limited time now, sir. Would you like to confess?”

“Confess?” Hart looked at Anders, contempt in his features the preacher didn’t understand. Did he believe himself innocent?

“No,” Hart continued. “But I’ll tell you a story.”

Anders shrugged it off. “You’re welcome to unburden yourself however makes you comfortable.”

“Aye, maybe. What makes one man comfortable may be mighty uncomfortable for another, though.”

He paused and took a breath, maybe tasting the air for the right moment. The preacher hadn’t expected theatricality from the man. Then again, what was one supposed to expect from the condemned? What did they have to lose? When Anders had begun to wonder if he was going to speak, Hart’s voice broke the silence.

“My pappy came here 30 years ago, looking to stake a claim. This was all wilderness then. Not like this, but hard wilderness. Wild. He was from French stock, though I wouldn’t hold that against him. Not that it matters, but you’ve got to understand, those men, they were just trying to live. Some of them it made mean. Some a little crazy. He built a home about ten miles back—but you know that. Anyway, it was important to him that we keep that house. Tradition, you ken?”

Anders nodded. The sheriff had sketched in some details.

“What happened to your father?” Anders asked.

Hart shrugged. “Consumption. Got him in the winter of ’56. What the sawbones said, anyway.”

“You didn’t believe him?”

Anders shook his head. “Maybe at first. Maybe a little.” He shrugged. “Maybe it was the sickness that got into him. A sickness, anyway.”

“How do you mean?”

“Doesn’t matter.” He craned his neck over his shoulder, at the path they rode down. “It’s done, and I’m not long for this world.”

“Truth doesn’t matter?”

Hart shook his head. “Truth, lies, what is and what might’ve been. None of it matters once it’s done, does it? It’s over, and you’re left with the after. For as long as that lasts.”

“Does that make you afraid?” Anders asked.

Hart looked at him, hard, and considered. “Maybe once. Now, I don’t know. Part of me is going to be glad to quit this Earth.”

“Because of what you’ve done?”

“Wasn’t me, pastor. I told the sheriff and his men, and the judge, and I’ll tell you—wasn’t me. And even if it was, I don’t recall. But what I do remember—I don’t want it in my brain anymore.”

“Who then?”

 “You mean what.”

“Pardon?”

What is the word you’re looking for.”

“Tell me about it, then.”

Anders took in a breath and let it out in a long plume. He hung his head, hair falling in lank locks over his eyes. He seemed to shrink in on himself. After a minute, he spoke.

“It was cold that night. You know the house is on a hill, in a clearing. Pappy set it there so he could see what was coming, Indian or beast, or both. The drawback there is that the wind can whip mighty mean ’round the eaves when it’s got its back up. Sounds like a banshee when it’s blowing hard. You know the banshee, pastor?”

Anders shook his head.

“Old Irish story. Say it’s the ghost of a woman, and if you hear her scream, someone’s gonna die. Maria, my wife—she’s Irish—that’s where I learned of it. Least she was, before. Hard to be anything the way they found her.” He paused for a moment, though whether for effect or to fight down the memory, Anders couldn’t tell. Hart took a breath and went on. “Superstitious as hell. That wind would blow up, and she’d fork her fingers and spit through them. I used to laugh at her for that.

“’Just gettin’ spit on the floor,’ I’d tell her.

“The kids though, they’d take their momma serious. You know how it is, little ‘uns and their mothers. They’d follow suit, and fork their fingers and spit too, though being kids, they’d just spit on their hands and end up wiping it on their jumpers.

“That night though, she didn’t do it. Can’t say why—maybe she was settling in finally, maybe she was just feeling comfortable. Anyway, that wind blew on, and she was too busy cookin’ up dumplings, or a piece of venison, or summat, and the Devil’s fork never occurred to her. “

He shook himself, and went on.

“I was sitting by the fire. Had an old book my pappy had left—something by one of those pilgrims—you know, God-fearing men, men like you—and my pipe. Never lit it in the house though. Made things stink awful. Anyway, that wind was blowin’, and I hear something coming through the trees, so I put my book down and get up, over to the door. I open it and the wind damn near blows it out of my hands, but I kept a good grip, and I looked out toward the tree line. Sure enough, something’s moving down there—probably a deer or an elk—I can see the antlers, but we got enough meat for now, so I close the door and sit down.

“’What was that?’ Maria asked me.

“’Just the wind,’ I said.”

He heaved a sigh. “Damn fool thing to say.” Another sigh. “Anyway.”

“Didn’t think nothin’ else about it until after dinner. Stomach was troubling me, you see. Felt like I was still hungry, but I couldn’t account for it, so I thought Hell, I’ll go get that deer. We could always use the extra after all, and the air will do me good. So, I got my rifle and walked down to the trees, but I couldn’t see a thing.

“The wind kicked up, and was howling something fierce, but I thought I’d go a little further. Kept seeing those antlers, between the trees, so I kept going. Got to a clearing a few hundred yards from the house, and it’s like that deer had just up and vanished. Not a track, not a trace. And the whole time I’m chasing it, all I could think of was how that stag would taste. Steak and stew and roast. By then I’d worked myself up into stomach pains.

“Then I heard the door banging in the wind, and thought I’d latched it. I headed back.”

He looked up at Anders, and his face was pale. Tears stood in his eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, like a rabbit caught in a snare. For a moment, Anders thought the man was having a fit. They rode in silence for a time. Finally, Hart got a hold of himself, and managed to swallow. He heaved a deep sigh.

“Do I gotta go on?”

Anders shook his head, but said gently, “No. But it might do your soul some good.”

Hart sniffed and rubbed at his eyes for a moment, then cleared his throat. He coughed, sniffed again, and then went on, plowing forward as if he saw the end barreling at him as the track rose up the hill.

“The house was open when I got back, and there was muddy tracks from the threshold, but they trailed off after a few yards. Smelled—smelled something fierce, too. But goddamn was I hungry by the time I got back.

“They was a mess—opened from groin to gullet, but by then, all I could feel was the pain in my stomach, and the sound—my God, it was a roar in my belly. I went from pantry to cupboard to stove, but there weren’t a bite to eat, like someone had emptied every cabinet in that short time I’d been gone.”

He broke down in sobs. Anders waited for him, gently administering It’s all right, sons until the man calmed. When Hart recovered, the rest fell out of him as though he’d been opened up.

“I buh-buh-bit her. I bit off a big strip of her thigh, and my God, it tasted so good. And that wind died right down, and I finally found peace that night. I don’ t know how long I ate on her leg, that leg I’d caressed and kissed and admired, but when I looked up the first time, sated, some thing peered in the window. A deer skull atop a wasted body watching, and its eyes were pits of fire, its lips tattered and bloodstained. I don’t recall the rest. Then the sheriff and his boys showed up.”

His eyes were wide and his pupils pinpoints. One of the horses stepped on a branch, snapping it neatly in two, and Anders started. Hart snapped.

“OH JESUS AND MARY, IT’S HERE IT’S HERE IT’S HERE OH GOD-“

The sheriff appeared beside him and fetched him a blow to the side of the head, cutting the man’s screams off. Hart’s skull rocked to one side, and his eyes went sleepy. He fell quiet. Bill looked at Anders.

“Pastor. I think you’re done here.”

Anders nodded, and with one last glance at the prisoner, they rode to the front of the line. They rode in silence for some time, the only sounds those of the horses and the wagon.

“Warned you.”

“Did you see it?”

The sheriff didn’t respond immediately. When he did, his voice was sober. “I served at Antietam, you know. Twenty thousand dead. Men trying to hold their guts in, screaming on the field, nursing slowly rotting wounds. But this… this was different. Evil, pastor. His family was split, like he said. But that knife was in the basin. And his hands were red. Gore up to the elbows. Pan on the stove.” He glanced back at Hart. “Men lie, pastor. Everyone lies. But this…” he trailed off, and when he didn’t pick it back up, Anders asked the question that had slipped into his mind.

“Did you see the tracks he talked about?”

Bill nodded. “Hoofprints. Probably their pony got loose. We found it a day later, by the stream, half-eaten. Likely wolves.”

“You don’t believe there could be other possibilities, sheriff?”

Bill looked at him. “I do. Just not the kind of mumbo-jumbo you’re talking about. No offense, pastor, but I’ve seen enough darkness in the world without needing your devil. There’s enough evil in a man’s heart. He doesn’t need a boogeyman as an accomplice.”

They rounded a curve on the hill, and the forest opened up. Trees fell away to expose a crossroads, the road falling away to the cardinal points of the compass. The gallows stood beside the center, tall and skeletal against the lightening gray sky. From behind them, Hart whimpered. They rode until they were beside the killing tree, and dismounted, Bill and Withers pulling Hart from the back of the wagon.

Bill pulled a small black hood from his back pocket and pulled it roughly over Hart’s head, the man coughing out a sob as it went. Despite his talk, Anders thought the end did not come as glibly as bravado did for those who professed it. He retrieved the Bible from his saddlebag and walked the steps of the gallows, bootheels echoing on the boards, to stand by the lever. They led the prisoner up the stairs, legs watery as he walked. More than once they had to brace his arms to keep him from falling down. Bird droppings and leaves crunched underfoot as they came to a halt. Soft weeping soudned from inside the black fabric over his head.

On the platform, the sheriff looped the noose around Hart’s neck and tightened it, the rough fibers rasping together like dry skin. He stepped to the side and took up position beside the lever. This was it, then. The time when confession turned to punishment. All those words, like autumn leaves on dry earth. Anders opened the Bible, a breeze ruffling the pages.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…“His voice blended into the background as the wind kicked up to a howl, rattling the boughs around them.

The horses whinnied, and from somewhere in the forest, a branch broke. A flash of white between the trunks. A dark stain spread across Hart’s trousers, the acrid smell of urine rising in the air. From inside the hood, he screamed himself raw voice rising until it cracked.

“PULL THE LEVER PULL THE LEVER PULL THE-“

A creak and a thump as the mechanism tripped, the trapdoor slamming open. The clear snap of Hart’s neck, punctuation to his screaming. The sound mirrored the breaking branch in the distance, and Anders’ guts gave a hard lurch. The sharp odor of bowels evacuating. The creak of the weight of a body on a rope as it swung from the gantry.

The wind died down, and Anders’ voice carried on the clear air.

…deliver us from evil.

Hart’s body spun gently. Anders closed the book and looked out at the woods. From somewhere in the gloom, feeble morning light caught a set of bone-white antlers. A shudder ran through him, and his mouth filled with saliva. He reminded himself that God was even here, among the lost and dead things, though it rang as hollow as his stomach.

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