The hangman took down the body from the gallows. It was the third execution Sheriff Sands had ordered this week—three more than all of last year.
Reverend Clayton called it a sign of the times, spoke of the spread of godlessness that would destroy the town but for brave men who stood for what was true and right. Men like Sheriff Sands.
The hangman worked by the full moon’s illumination, throwing the body over one shoulder. He’d liked Owen, couldn’t understand why he’d wanted to do something so stupid. But they’d found him guilty, and that was that.
“Shame on you.” Miss Soames stepped from the darkness, a shawl across her shoulders and her head uncovered. “Shame on you, Jeb White.”
Her eyes bore into the hangman, as if she could see through his hood. As if she could read his thoughts.
He brought his shoulders up to deepen his voice. “Just doin’ my job, ma’am.”
Miss Soames placed her hands on her wide hips, blocking his path. “And that voice doesn’t fool anyone. Especially not God.”
His shoulders fell. “Don’t mean to offend, ma’am.”
“I know you don’t.” Her voice softened. “You never did, even when I had to have words.”
Have words. Those words took Jeb back to the schoolroom, after lessons. Miss Soames would have him stand before her desk, and she’d point out the things he’d done wrong, and he’d say he was sorry, say he’d try harder in future.
It never helped, though. Miss Soames was a darned fine schoolmarm, but he just wasn’t the learning type.
“Just doin’ what he told me to, Miss Soames. If I din’t, who would?”
“Always the follower.” She shook her head slowly. “But we’re both adults. You can call me Judy.”
“Don’t feel right, ma’am,”
She tilted her head, and her eyes fell on the body over his shoulder. “Owen Drake was a good man. Worked hard, always provided for Mary and the boys.”
He shuffled his feet to ease the weight. “Never had no need to take those jewels from Missus Purdey.”
“Indeed he didn’t. But what of Billy Morgan and Sandy Donahoe? What of the other two?”
Jeb knew he was slow, but he had his moments, as his mother had always said. He could see where Miss Soames was leading. “They were found guilty,” he said.
“Found guilty? Who found this to be so?”
“Sheriff Sands. Reverend Clayton. Mister Climes.” Jeb rattled off the names, those who ran the town.
“And does that mean they were guilty?”
Jeb wanted to say that of course it did, but the words wouldn’t come. He thought of Billy, after Daisy all these years, never building up the pluck to talk to her. Didn’t seem like he’d do what they said he did, with that girl over Pine Ridge way. And Sandy—he was a strange ‘un, always muttering to himself and keeping to that shack half out on the prairie. But he just liked his own company. Didn’t mean he was in league with the devil or nothing, not like the Reverend said.
“I never could get you to learn your letters,” Miss Soames said, “but you were never unintelligent. You keep quiet, but that means you see more than most. So I believe you can see the clouds over our town. Can’t you, Jeb? Even with that hood on, I believe you see the way things are turning.”
Mister Morgan ran the hardware store, and Sheriff Sands had never liked him, ever since he ran for Sheriff himself. Sandy never went to church, said he didn’t trust God to speak through lying lips. And Missus Drake—well, everyone knew she did her husbands accounts, knew more about numbers than just anyone else. Hard to believe she made a mistake over Mister Climes’ dealings, even though he denied them so hard.
Yes, Jeb could see the coming storm. He could see how certain people were battening down the hatches, making sure they came through just fine. And everyone else could go to the dogs.
“But what can I do?” Jeb said, shifting the weight on his shoulder. “I’m nobody.”
Miss Soames smiled, like she had done after school, when she knew he was on the edge of understanding.
“You’re a part of this town,” she said. “You see what’s happening.”
“But I’m only doin’ my job.”
She shook her head. “You’re doing their job.” She stepped back, giving Jeb room to pass. “Think about it, Jebediah. Decide where you stand.”
And she walked away, into the night, leaving the hangman with the third of Sheriff Sands’ victims. He’d carried away Billy, and Sandy before that, and the burden still rested heavily on his shoulders.
* * *
The storm had come. It had been dark, and brooding, the kind of storm where the promise of thunder and lightning is worse than the flashes and rumbles themselves. And now it was over save for the clearing up.
The town stood in mud. The single lamp lit the gallows, the other two in shadow, already used.
The Sheriff passed the condemned man, bound and hooded, over to the hangman, who arranged the noose and pulled the knot into place at the back of the man’s neck.
“Any last words, Sands?” the Sheriff said.
There was only silence.
On the Sheriff’s signal, the hangman triggered the trapdoor. Sands fell. He jerked a couple of times and then hung, swaying as the wood creaked.
Sheriff Morgan placed a hand on the hangman’s shoulder. “Good work, Jeb,” he said. “You know what to do with the bodies?”
The hangman nodded. He knew where to find the graves, far away from the town itself. Three trips. They’d offered him help, but this was something he could do for the town. Something else.
The crowd dispersed, and Jeb looked out, found Miss Soames. She nodded, then disappeared into the night.
A darned fine teacher, that one.
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Always A Reason