Short Story: The Hangman – Will Starr
A Short Story by Will Starr
Jake Smithers glared at me from his bunk and remained seated.
‘If I have to, I’ll get Jonas and Billy and we’ll carry you out.’ I paused. ‘Don’t let them see you scared, Jake. Walk out there on your own. It’s going to happen no matter what you do, so you might as well make the best of it.’
‘I ain’t scared.’
He was lying, of course. Beads of sweat covered his forehead and there was dew on his upper lip. He was scared, sure enough, but who wouldn’t be?
Two months ago, Dave Johnson came bursting in my office, his face ashen and a look of horror on his face. He had gone out to see the Wheelers to buy some cheese and found them both dead, their throats cut. Molly Wheeler, their daughter, was nowhere to be found.
It took two days and circling vultures to find Molly. She was on the west bank of Dead Man Wash and it was an ugly scene. She was half naked and she had died of stab wounds to her chest. There was blood and skin under her nails. She was fifteen.
‘Sheriff! Come look at this!’ Billy Burdette, one of my two deputies, had followed a faint trail where the long grass was still slightly bent and had found something. It proved to be a long, bone-handled knife with traces of blood and dirt on the blade. Someone had tried to clean it by plunging it into the ground. It must have fallen out as the murderer hurried away.
‘Recognize it?’ Jonas Philbin, my other deputy, had ridden down from the slope overlooking the creek to join us.
‘Maybe. It looks like something that blacksmith John Turnbull, over at Cordes, might have made.’
The small town of Cordes was a stop for the California and Arizona stage line, where John Turnbull’s smithy shop flourished with the ranching, mining and stagecoach trade. I dismounted and watched for a moment as the hammer rose and fell again and again in the shaping and forging of a shoe.
He paused in his labor and glanced over at me. I showed him the knife and asked if he had made it. He had. Turnbull glanced at the knife and nodded. ‘Yup. Made that for Devin Colburn, that card sharp who deals at the Bucket of Blood in Prescott.’
I found Devin Colburn at the Palace on Whiskey Row, where I handed him the knife and asked what he knew about it. Colburn turned the knife over in his hands. ‘Who’s asking?’ He peered up at me through shaggy brows. He was seated at a table playing solitaire at ten o’clock in the morning, a cup of coffee steaming in front of him.
‘I’m Tim Grace, Yavapai County sheriff.’
‘Well, sir, I lost this knife high carding with a man two months ago. He put up a gold watch.’ He glanced up at me. ‘I think he cheated me.’
I chuckled. ‘That must have been some trick! I heard you can cut an ace anytime you want.’
‘Not when the other man has a gun pointed at me.’ Colburn smiled. He may have been a card slick, but he had a sense of humor.
‘Did the winner have a name?’
‘He called himself Jake Smithers. Older man, maybe six feet tall, but thin as a bed sheet. What’s he wanted for?’
‘Know where I can find him?’
‘Haven’t seen him around directly. I hear he has himself a cabin up by Crown King. Does some panning up there when he needs a stake.’
Jonas positioned himself behind the cabin with his revolving shotgun while Billy found a spot in the rocks where he could cover the front door and south side. I was also in front and just down the path from the door. We had been there since daybreak, and I was considering going in when I heard footsteps coming up the path and a man came into view. He had already seen me so I decided to play a part.
‘Who the hell are you and what do you want up here?’ He was a tall, thin man, and there were long, healing scratches on his cheek and throat. He glanced around nervously, but Billy and Jonas were both out of sight.
‘I bought me a claim on the creek down yonder, and then I spotted this here cabin. I’m wondering if the owner might be interested in selling?’
‘I’m the owner, and anything is for sale if the price is right.’
I stuck out my hand. ‘Cal Peters is the name.’
He took my hand reluctantly. ‘Name’s Smithers.’
I waved him on. ‘After you, sir.’
He stepped in front of me and I palmed my revolver, eased back the hammer and pressed the cold muzzle into the back of his neck. He stiffened and halted.
‘I’m Sheriff Tim Grace, and you, Mister Smithers, are under arrest for the murders of Joseph and Christine Wheeler and their daughter, Molly. Put your hands in the air.’
‘Never heard of ’em.’
Jonas finished putting the irons on his ankles and wrists and left to fetch the wagon. Billy appeared at the cabin door where he had been looking for evidence and motioned to me. I chained Smithers to a pine and walked over.
‘Would you look at this, Sheriff? I found this on a shelf next to his bunk. Good Lord!’ Billy looked sick.
It was a tintype likeness of Molly Wheeler.
The trial lasted one day. Mrs. Tyler had gone to the Wheelers’ to buy a round of cheese on the day of the murders and she testified that Jake Smithers was the man who opened the gate for her and helped load the cheese into her buckboard. She broke down in tears because, she said, other than Smithers, she was the last person to see the Wheelers alive.
It was devastating statement, but the clincher was Billy Burdette. When he testified that he had found Molly’s picture next to Smithers’ bunk, the jury gasped in horror, and Smithers’ fate was sealed.
‘Turn around. Put your hands behind you and between the bars.’ He complied grudgingly and I clamped on the irons. At my nod, Billy opened the cell and Jonas put on the leg irons and a wide belt around his waist, to which we fastened the irons around his wrist.
‘Keep your head up high, Jake, and keep moving.’
Jonas took one arm and Billy the other. I opened the door and stepped out on the boardwalk, motioning people to stand back. The Wheelers were well loved, and that alone was enough to stir up anger, but the brutal killing of Molly made Smithers the most hated man in the territory.
‘You folks stand back, and let justice be done in a lawful matter. This man is about to pay his debt, so don’t interfere. This is Jake Smithers’ day to die, not yours’
There was some angry mumbling, but the crowd drew back and gave us room. I signaled to my deputies and they brought the prisoner out.
I let Billy and Jonas pass with Smithers and followed them, keeping an eye on the crowd. There were some muttered words, but no one seemed willing to do more. They parted and let us walk to the gallows in peace.
Just before we reached the steps, Smithers’ knees buckled slightly, but no one seemed to notice. We mounted the steps one by one and reached the platform. Preacher Thomas was there waiting for us, but the hangman was nowhere in sight.
While Jonas pulled the leather belts tight around Smithers’ elbows and ankles, and the preacher began to intone the scripture, Billy went to find the missing hangman. When Jonas was done, I moved Smithers over the trapdoor, and fitted the noose around his neck and tightened it, placing the knot under his left ear. I pulled the black hood out of my belt and placed it over his head. I put my mouth close to his ear and spoke quietly.
‘Buck up, Jake. You’re doing fine. You won’t feel a thing and then you’ll finally be at peace.’ I stepped back and waited for Preacher Thomas to finish.
Billy came up the stairs with a perplexed look on his face. He walked over and spoke in a low tone. ‘The hangman is over at Doc’s. They think he may have had a heart attack or something. He’s alert and all, but he says he ain’t up to it. He’s says you’ll have to do it.’
I looked around at the crowd and swallowed hard. I was a lawman, not a hangman, but I couldn’t put anyone through this twice, not even a man like Jake Smithers. Preacher Thomas was wrapping up, so I walked over to the trap lever. The crowd had been watching all this and knew something was wrong, so they gasped when I took the hangman’s position.
Preacher Thomas said his amen and backed up. It was my turn.
‘Jacob Smithers, you have been tried by a jury of your peers and found guilty of the capital crime of murder and sentenced to be hung by the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul.’
And, just like that, I pulled the lever. There was a startled whimper of terror from the black hood as the floor fell away and his sudden downward plunge began. Then his body abruptly hit the end of the rope with an audible snap. I walked over to the trap and looked down, my hand automatically reaching for the taut rope, which proved to be a bad mistake. His body was in spasms, quivering and trembling in the throes of death and all of it was transmitted up the rope, through my hand, and into my conscience forever. I released my grip quickly and, just for a moment, I thought I would be sick right up there in front of everyone.
The crowd began to drift away, and I went beneath the gallows with my deputies to remove the body. As I did, my Aunt Betty suddenly appeared and made a request that stunned me. ‘I want to see that man’s face up close, Tim. It’s important. I think I know him.’
‘He’ll be at the undertakers and cleaned up tomorrow. You can see him then. He’s not fit to view right now.’
‘No. I must see him now before he’s all powdered up. It’s important, Tim. You know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t.’
My spinster Aunt Betty had raised me. My mother had died bearing me, and my father had been killed earlier. I shrugged my shoulders and removed the hood. His face was mottled and the skin of his throat had been ripped open by the rope, but all in all, he didn’t look that bad. Aunt Betty peered at him for a long moment and slowly nodded her head.
She straightened up. ‘I’ve seen what I wanted. You can take him now.’
I didn’t say anything until after we finished dinner that night. Even then I waited. Finally, Aunt Betty placed a cup of coffee in front of me and drew up a chair with her evening cup of tea.
‘I didn’t involve myself in the Wheeler murders, Tim, because there was little I could do, so I stayed back and out of the way. When you arrested Jake Smithers, the name meant nothing to me. I stayed out of the trial and I was satisfied with the verdict. But I’ve always felt it’s a citizen’s duty to witness a public hanging, ugly as they are, because it is the culmination of justice for our neighbors.’ She took a sip of tea. ‘When I saw that man for the first time this morning, I was shocked. I thought I recognized him just before you put on the hood and then I had to know. He was someone I knew very well at one time in my life, Tim. His real name was John Benton.’
She stirred her tea and then looked up at me. ‘He was my husband.’
I was stunned. I had always thought my aunt was a spinster because no husband had ever been mentioned. After a moment, she went on.
‘I was only married for a few months, Tim. Then, one day, I learned that my husband was an evil man. In fact, he was a monster. You see, I found out he had molested my sixteen year old sister.’
She raised her eyes to me. ‘He impregnated your mother, Tim. Your father wasn’t killed years ago. That was a lie meant to protect you. John Benton was your father.’