The young man gazed into the eyes of the condemned man standing on the back of the wagon, hands tied behind his back, his sagging gut hanging over his black belt, his beard grandfatherly—black with splotches of white, and though not very long, it was thick and heavy. The young man looked earnestly into the condemned man’s eyes, wondering if he truly had it within himself to go through with what was about to take place before him.
Two other men climbed up on the wagon beside the condemned man, one was holding the long noose end of the rope that had already been secured to a high branch in the tree that might have been pretty in a different setting. The other man had some cloth he was wrapping around the prisoner’s neck—comforting the dying.
The young man thought for some long moments, what must it feel like to be there, in that other one’s position? Hands behind your back, the fast pace of your heart racing to its final great rhythms, it’s sad sad song a funeral march to the solution of the greatest mystery in humanity: what comes after? What strength did it take in a man to not buck, to not resist, to not break free and run as far and fast as one could when standing in such a position as the big man before him. How was it he didn’t look more frightened? Especially if he were guilty of even half of which the others had claimed.
The young man looked about the crowd he was standing in. He considered their faces, who they were when they weren’t executioners, and practitioners of death? He saw John Clemmens, the saddleback doctor that went around to at least three counties in rain, shine, or snow, and was happy to be paid in a hot meal. Standing not far from him was the motherly Sunday school teacher Marion Rutless, or Mrs. Rutless as so many in the community had known her—she had always been the surest figure of posterity, regality, and Christianity before. And yet here she was, in the death mob. Across the way, just opposite where the young man stood, were more faces, prominent figures, good men, good women, and even some children.
At their epicenter the death roll was drumming down. There was a hushed silence to the crowd, it was heavy, making its own darker atmosphere that contrasted the grey but happy day they stood in. Cold air cut through their mass, making more than a few hands grip shoulders, rub vigorously, or to just stand mule strong and shiver. It was really about to happen, the young man thought. They were really going to go through with it.
He watched, not helping himself, gazing deep into those brown eyes of the condemned wondering what secrets they held. Yet he was afraid to look for too long, what if the man’s essence, the man’s evil (if what they said were true), or some other piece or part of the man’s being stuck to the young man once the wagon was rolled away and he was left to kick? What if corruption of soul was a contagion worse than fevers, chills, or other such sicknesses?
“Our father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…” the condemned man began to pray.
“To hell with you! Should’a been praying long time ago!” one of the onlookers said. He shook his fist and spat brown tobacco on the ugly dirt at his worn out boots.
“…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” the condemned man prayed.
Mrs. Rutless looked down, her head slowly, methodically, ticked like a shaky handed time piece. She was having some internal conflict for what everyone in the crowd knew was at their doorstep. Some leaned in, their eyes hungry for the lust of death and snuffing out of life, others leaned back, eyes wide, shock filled, unsure.
“Fess your sins before your community, and God a’mighty?” one of the men standing at the side of the condemned man’s sides asked.
“I do not fear death, I am too great for death, too great for all of you,” The prisoner said, his great belly shaking as he made his bold claims, and once his eyes quivered with nervous uncertainty. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
The two men at the prisoner’s side had hopped down off the wagon and went to the horse at its front.
“…I shall fear…”
One of the men slapped the horse hard and yelled, it took off with a damning speed. The wagon rolled out beneath the prisoner’s feet, throwing him off balance and leaving him with a great drop. For one long horrible drawn out moment he hung frozen in the air, an angel in heaven just prior to rebellion and being cast out. And then he plummeted in sickly sweet fluidity until the rope caught, gave a jerk and yanked him just slightly back up. There was a devilish snapping sound that went through the cold steadfast crowd.
The young man had never turned away. He felt sick with himself for being in the audience, for standing still watching, for saying nothing, doing nothing. Where once a man stood, now there was only the reminder of a life that had been, swinging from the tree like a twisted Christmas ornament in Hell. The prisoner was unnaturally still, no feet kicking, no hint of life, not even when the rope gave way and broke.
The crowd gasped and stepped back. The great man lay lifeless at the foot of the little hill beside the tree.
“Leave ‘em be,” said one of the men that had been on the wagon before. “If he still got life, let it leak out of him slow. Maybe there’ll be some justice in his suffering here before them Hell fires take his rotten soul.”
“Amen,” someone said in the crowd.
They stood together as one body, one group for long moments, simply watching. The air thick and heavy with what they had done. Death clung to each of them in a black tarry presence that was not physical and yet was completely undeniable. They stood together even as the day grew colder and a great snow started to fall.
Finally they broke, not all at once, but one at a time, and scattered back to the lives they had put on hold to see to the death of the one that had sinned against their community. Life would go on, or so the many in that crowd had thought.