June 22, 1850
It was easy to watch them burn. To watch their bodies roast as the flames first licked, then consumed them whole.
He stood his ground as man and woman, adult and child perished in the fire, dying in unspeakable agony. From his vantage point, the Stranger could see and smell everything. Those who had not succumbed to the thick, acrid smoke begged for help, for a mercy that would not be forthcoming, their cries muffled only by death itself. He wasn’t sure if some screamed willfully or because their lungs sought to release the pressure caused by the super-heated air; they were expanding, inevitably to burst. These victims drowned in their own blood, which simmered in their bodies.
His feet were unmoving; no matter how hard he tried. Night after night he could not escape this macabre nightmare as those around him, trapped in the charnel house of his mind, pounded on the locked doors of the church that was to become their tomb. Even on the rare morrow that he would awake not drowning in night sweats, he could still feel the presence of the horrific vision in his mind, seared into his brain as if branded with a red-hot iron.
The sun had barely risen, though the Texas heat was already unbearable. At least inside his cell, the Stranger was directly in the shadow of the gallows being erected for his hanging the following day. Truth was the Stranger wasn’t sleeping, but had taken to closing his eyes and pretending he was. During the moments he was noticed to be awake, he was subjected to non-stop barrages of verbal and physical harassment by the jail’s proprietor, who used the Stanger’s sentencing to justify his cruelty—insisting that the prisoner deserved no better. After all, he was to be the town’s guest of honor in what would serve to be the only real entertainment in weeks.
To a certain extent, the Stranger didn’t believe he deserved any better than the promised hanging, either. His had been a life of unrepentant sin fueled by anger, jealousy, greed, and every extreme of emotion felt by a man with no direction or boundaries. He had stolen, murdered, robbed, raped, and taken the Lord’s name in vain—sometimes all while even in service of his own country. He often used spirits to self-medicate and flee the world around him—although this liquid escape only lubricated the wheels that perpetuated his path of destruction.
His past—what he could slowly remember of it—had been soaked in the blood of the innocent and not-so innocent alike. After two sobering weeks in a stifling cell, barred from whiskey as the heat soaked up the remaining drops left in him, his past quickly filled up with regret.
Regret of a life wasted; of loves never found; of promises left unfulfilled.
But even the regret, he reckoned, would be temporary, given his date with the gallows in less than twenty-four hours.
With a creak, the Stranger could hear the front door of the sheriff’s office open. Someone was coming in. He kept his eyes shut and his back to the cell door, hoping that continuing to feign sleep would keep whomever it was from bothering him during what few hours he had left. Along with the sound of boots on the rotted wooden floor came misplaced giggles, which were unmistakably female.
“Thar h’is,” spoke the bug-eyed, rail-thin deputy, the one who the Stranger discovered everyone called “Kentuck” for no better reason than that’s where he’d claimed his kin had migrated from. Along with Kentuck was a nearly toothless whore who, though only in her twenties, looked two decades older from the years on her back and a five year habit involving laudanum.
“Git up!” Kentuck yelled through the bars. When the Stranger didn’t move, Kentuck sucked a wad of tobacco-stained saliva into his cheek and spit onto the Stranger’s vulnerable back. “I says, ‘Git up!’” he repeated.
His incarceration here in Sagebrush, Texas, this small border town just north of the Rio Grande, had been marked with similar and regular abuse. The night he had been arrested, Kentuck and the sheriff, a stocky and cantankerous man named Overton, beat the Stranger into unconsciousness in this very cell while the Stranger’s hands were still cuffed behind his back. The charge had been stealing a horse—of which he was definitely guilty—and killing the man who owned the now stolen horse. The latter was a debatable charge at best, since the Stranger claimed he’d just been firing a warning shot, and the “hapless geezer in question had impeded the passage of said bullet with his foolhardy head.”
After the Stranger had been caught, instead of calling in a marshal or a judge, Sheriff Overton deemed the situation one that was to be handled without the “meddlin’ of outsiders,” as he liked to put it. Besides, he reckoned, given the chance, a proper hanging would be a spectacle that would be good for morale, especially if the condemned danced that agonizing mid-air jig for several minutes at the end of a rope that he enjoyed so much instead of dying quickly from a neck snap. That would be right entertaining, it would, he thought, and would go a long ways to help him get reelected sheriff come fall.
“Git t’yer feet!” Kentuck yelled at the Stranger. He repeated it, and with his mouth wet with chaw it came out more like “Gitcherfeet!”
The Stranger obliged, if only to prevent provoking the young into any shows of bravado in front of his female guest. The Stranger also had one other reason to stand: to get a glance of what may be the last woman he would ever see up close. Not that Cherokee Sue—as the locals called her on account of her mixed blood—was any real specimen of beauty. There’d been a tale the Stranger overheard shortly after his arrest about Cherokee Sue giving birth to a child to which no less than a half-dozen men claimed paternity. What the Stranger wanted to know—and had the sense to keep to himself—was how many men in town had denied being the father? The child had passed in its third day and, given the conditions of the town and the prospects of its upbringing by Cherokee Sue, this was likely a merciful fate.
“He don’t look orn’ry,” Cherokee Sue hooted. She spat onto the wooden floor between her and the cage.
“He ain’t,” Kentuck hooted in return, almost in one syllable.
“Not after we got through w’him,” he finished. Kentuck made it crystal clear that he was proud of the beating he’d put on the restrained man.
“You wanna see one las’ cunny before ya die?” Cherokee Sue was grinning, already raising her dress above her knees. “I’ll show it t’ya.”
She took a step forward, standing right in front of the cell. As the hem of her filthy dress rose to her dirty and blood-stained thigh, the Stranger leaned closer, enough to smell the booze and grime soaked into her body. One lesson he’d learned early on was you had to take whatever little you could get, no matter what it was.
Just as the tattered hem of Cherokee Sue’s dress came just above mid-thigh, she leaned back and spat right into the Stranger’s face, cackling her toothless laugh at him as the liquid trickled from his eye to his mouth.
“D’ya see that?” she laughed at Kentuck. “He was so mezm’rized, I coulda walked up and put a blade in his eye.” She dropped her dress back down to cover herself, flattening the front with one hand, as if restoring an air of respectability to her appearance.
“Can’t wait t’see you dance,” the whore cackled again as she and Kentuck left arm in arm. “Bett’r make it a good one.”
The Stranger sat back down on the bunk when something caught his eye as the door closed: the face of a man, one he hadn’t seen since...
It was burned in his mind. An August day, 1847, three years prior. A battlefield shrouded in smoke. It was the last day the Stranger had worn that uniform, one decidedly not too different from the one worn by the man whose face he just imagined.
Another ghost from the past come to torment me in my final hours, the Stranger thought to himself.
It was obvious that what little time he had left on this earth would certainly not be spent in peace.
He stared at the door for what seemed to be hours, waiting for it to open once more; to see if that face, one no less chilling than that of Beelzebub himself, was still there waiting for him. The door remained closed. The jail there in Sagebrush was no hub of activity, especially given Sheriff Overton’s proclivity of holing up daily in one of the town’s three saloons.
At midday, Overton finally entered carrying a yellowed plate topped with a grayish stew and a hardened biscuit, which he wordlessly gave to the Stranger. No sooner had Overton sat at his desk before a bearded man unknown to the Stranger walked into the jail. He was nattily attired in a black suit, contrasting sharply with the skin of his face, which had the color and look of an apples’ fleshy interior.
“Stand up,” Overton told the Stranger before opening the cell door. Putting down his plate of rotten food, the Stranger obliged—but as the bearded gentleman in the black suit proceeded to remove a measuring string from his pocket, it became clear the purpose he served here.
“Just about six feet tall,” the hangman said, reading the markings of his string dangled from the crown of the Stranger’s head to his feet. He examined the Stranger up close, eyeing the prisoner’s build. He grabbed the Stranger’s shoulders and squeezed.
“Solid, I’d say about two hundred pounds, give or take.” The bearded hangman made some notes on a small pad of paper.
The Stranger thought the number sounded low and would have argued the point if he’d known his actual weight. What he did know was that if the Hangman’s eyeball calculation was too light and the rope too short, he’d drop from the gallows floor and bounce up and down like a yo-yo, indeed slowly strangling to death.
“Coffin?” the hangman asked. “For an extra five bucks?”
Overton shook his head without taking a moment’s hesitation. “I say we leave ‘im strung up for the birds as a warnin’ to any others comin’ into my town fixin’ to be horse thieves and murd’rers.”
Great, the Stranger thought. Overton was sparing no effort to make an example of him. Of all the towns to steal a horse, he had to pick this one.
The hangman charged Overton a dollar for the rope, which the Sheriff gladly paid, given it was an investment toward his re-election. When the hangman’s grim business was over, he left with a touch of his hat brim in Overton’s direction—but barely a glance toward the Stranger, the man whose body he just examined. As the Stranger sat back on his bunk, feeling a rancid stew churn in his belly, he stared out at the dry Texas sky through the bars of his window; it had been a sky he’d carelessly stared into many times as a free man. Today he cherished every last moment of daylight he could see, marveling the shades of blue he’d never taken the time to notice before.
As the sun disappeared below the horizon, the Stranger could hear the unmistakable sounds of nightly revelry drifting down the street from the town’s saloons. He figured he was the topic of conversation while Overton was in there buying drinks, slapping backs, and reminding everyone to show up bright and early to get a good view of the gallows.
The Stranger even imagined Kentuck would be cashing in Cherokee Sue’s toothless gratitude that night for her chance to spit in the face of a murderer.
If they only knew, the Stranger mused. If they only knew.
Inasmuch as he fought it—not wanting to cede one precious moment of consciousness—the Stranger fell asleep, his body finally surrendering to the exhaustion. His eyes closed, bringing with them a fractured sense of peace.
On his wooden slat bunk he tossed and turned once more, his bothered sleep tormented again by spirits of darkness that had returned with a concussive thump in the night. Of all the nightmares that had come in the last few years that leeched into his subconscious mind, this one was different.
“Brother Thomas, please do something!” the woman shrieked at him, her eyes boring into his as the firelight danced across her frail features. Her mouth had curled in agonizing panic. The Stranger recoiled from her hands, pawing at his coat. The sounds—screams for mercy, screams of unbridled fear—rose around him as they pounded against the locked door and the fire licked greedily at their heels.
There was no mistaking the crucifix on the wall, even as fire reclaimed it as ash. This was a church all right, but not the burning house of God from his previous nightmares. That one—a recollection of a memory seared into his mind—he had seen with his own eyes. This new vision, a similarly twisted tableau, was somehow keenly different: all about him was the agonizing helplessness embedded in the thick smoke of charred flesh and bone. Though as he himself became helplessly paralyzed with panic—his mind exploding to find his own escape from this flaming incarceration—he spun to find the face of a man whose grinning mouth stretched below blackened eyes, reminiscent of a abysmal well.
“Yes, Brother Thomas,” this grin laughed at him. “Please do something!” The bellow coming from this mouth chilled the Stranger to the bone while the flames rose all around them to consume them back into the earth.
As the sun broke through the bars of the cell and fell upon his face, the Stranger stirred, then awoke.
Damnit, he thought. It was morning and he began cursing himself for his lost night—what he figured would be his last. Any moment he expected Overton and that rat-faced sidekick deputy, Kentuck, to come in, cuff his hands, and lead him to the gallows. The Stranger sat with his feet planted firmly on the floor and his eyes shut as he tried to remember any kind of prayer from his past. When they came for him, he would neither beg nor cry; he would take every last step with whatever dignity he had left.
Minutes passed, then what seemed like hours. His stomach grumbled from hunger. Finally the Stranger got to his feet and peered out the window of his cell. The gallows were still in plain view, a brand new ten-strand hemp noose awaiting his neck.
But there was nobody there.
No men. No women and children perched upon buckboards awaiting the spectacle of his slow execution.
And that’s when he noticed it:
The door to his cell was unlocked and slightly ajar.