by Paul Hook
Nails hammered into the wood at a blistering rate as Jimmy knew that he was already behind schedule. Blood seeped into his overalls as he sacrificed accuracy. No sounds escaped his mouth, no flinches took over his actions when he hit his thumb.
Rapid strikes of six on each nail and then onto the next. The scaffold was commissioned by the sheriff. Rollings was chintzy with the deal to build it, but paid up front, so Jimmy drank the rotgut the previous night and woke with a hangover.
“Get a move on, Jimmy, or you’ll be swinging next.” Rollings walked by, spurs jangling as he went. He whistled a tune and spat chew on the ground next to the carpenter.
“It’ll be done, boss.”
The crowd would form subsequently, to witness another soul sent back to his maker. The day before, Rollings had caught the man with five stolen cattle and the judge pronounced the verdict before the sheriff could finish a rolled cigarette. Justice was swift in the county. The rule was, ‘One night in the cell and the next day in hell.’
Although only hours after sunrise, it was sweltering in the desert. Summer was brutal, not just to animals, plants and the terrain, but towards the buildings and people. It drove the people to become resilient. Tougher than their city-cousins, the folk in the desert could overcome any deprivation. But they could not abide theft, no matter the reason.
Hours later, Jimmy had finished the scaffold and tested the stairs and structure. It wasn’t perfect, but good enough for a hanging. The rope was fetched and made into that singular symbol. Like a snake coiling around its prey, the rope would not give up on its victim on the scaffold until the job was complete.
Immediately, a dirge began and Jimmy scurried off the platform.
The crowds materialized and the mood was both jubilant and sombre. The sheriff stood at the bottom of the stairs, awaiting his charge. His deputy appeared in the middle of the crowd, as the people melted away, letting the dead-man walk towards his demise. The dirge continued and hit its nadir as the sun hit its zenith. Rollings let his deputy pass and the condemned was taken up the steps.
It seemed that the whole town had arrived. Jimmy stood in the shadow of the scaffold, noticing the undertaker and the whores placing bets on the outcome – broken neck or asphyxiation. Wishing he had money, he spit into the dust.
“Citizens of Dickson, you bear witness to justice. This is no one special, but beware. Should you find yourself in his boots, you too will be no one special. You will hang until dead.”
Concise and flat. The sheriff hadn’t lost his touch on public speaking.
The corpse declined to say anything, refusing the cover. Onlookers watched the burlap flutter to the ground. The tension broke with the creak of wood and shriek of metal hinges. The whores won and the man swung – kicking as if riding a bronco. Urine dripped down his pants, darkening the dust beneath the scaffold.
None cheered as the end came. The men returned to the saloon while the whores collected their winnings from the undertaker. He hurried to part with his money as he had work to do. Jimmy cut the rope, dropping the corpse into a heap.
“You got two hours to take this down, Jimmy.”
He cursed the heat as he pried the nails out of the wood and stacked the boards until they would be needed again. Piano music drifted towards him as he worked.
The noose was never used again; it was taboo. It was burned in a fire, its ashes scattered to the still desert.