Tommy stared through the barred windows at the gallows across the street. Grim humor filled his black eyes as he recalled the judge's words condemning him to "hang by the neck until dead." Noon was the time set for his exit from this world. He laughed darkly to himself.
"No Sir, Judge Perry," he said to himself, "I just ain't a gonna dance today. Maybe someday, but not today."
The opening and closing of the outer door to the jail startled him out of his thoughts. He turned back towards the front of the cell as the inner door opened. A huge, red-headed man entered the room carrying a plate of food. Easily six feet four inches tall, he was almost that wide. Thick corded muscles overflowing with incredible strength lay beneath even thicker layers of fat. He moved slowly towards the cell, an evil grin pasted to his face.
"Breakfast Tommy," he said and laughed wickedly, "I want you as full as you can get today. It'll help make your neck snap real quick. I take pride in my work, you know? Folks like to watch a hanged man's body jump and dance. You get that from a good snapped neck." He laughed again.
"Well thank you kindly Sheriff Abel, I truly appreciate that. I am pretty hungry. Let's see, what've we got here? Eggs, ham, biscuits and coffee, now that surely does make my belly stand up and take notice how empty it is. But truth of the matter is, I don't think it's enough to make my neck snap," Tommy replied with a wide grin.
Abel laughed, placed the large plate of food on the floor and roughly slid it under the bottom bar. "Laugh it up boy," his voice dropped an octave and he leered menacingly at Tommy. "I'm gonna take a bunch more pleasure in putting that rope round your neck than anybody else's I've ever done. You shouldn't have killed Hardy. He was my cousin you know."
"Well now, he shouldn't have been cheating at the cards."
"He wasn't packing iron Tommy," Abel growled.
Tommy just smiled good naturedly and started shoveling in the food. One of the two good things about this town was the food. 'Ole Smokey over at the café used to be a trail cook and he knew his business. It was some of the best food Johnny had eaten in his entire life.
Abel sneered at him then swung around to leave.
"Sheriff," Johnny called.
Abel turned back, glaring at Tommy, not offering any comment.
"I just wanna warn you so you ain't too disappointed," said Tommy, "I ain't a gonna dance the Hangman's Dance today. Just thought you might wanna know." Tommy smiled and kept attacking the food.
"The only way you ain't gonna dance for the folks Tommy," growled Abel, "is if one of God's own angels comes down and carries you off hisself. Tough luck boy, cuz there ain't no God. I hung him myself, six months ago." Laughing evilly, Abel turned and went back out to the office.
Tommy stopped chewing and stared at the retreating back of the monstrous man. "Just you wait Abel," he whispered.
He turned his attention back to the food. Taking half the biscuit, he sopped up the egg yolk and ham grease from the plate, shoving it in his mouth. He took the other half and dunked it in his coffee, eating it in two big bites. He tossed the empty tin plate and cup under the bars, then laid down on the thin, mangy, straw mattress. It sagged and creaked under his weight. Pulling his hat down over his eyes, he let out a long, loud burp and tried to get some sleep.
He'd only been lying down for a few minutes when the outer door to the jail opened again. He smiled to himself as he heard the only other good thing about the town begin talking in the outer room. Maria!
Tommy listened as Maria and Abel argued back and forth. Finally, he heard Abel yell loudly, "Three minutes woman! That's all I'll give you."
Tommy sat up as the inner door opened. Maria started to rush forward, but Abel threw an arm out, stopping her in her tracks. "Hold on," he growled, "Gotta make sure you got nothing to give him." Abel hungrily looked up and down Maria's body. Even the loose-fitting clothing she wore could not disguise the curves of her body, and those curves were all in the right places.
"You're a pig Sheriff!" she spat at him.
Abel's face changed to an apparent attitude of indifference, "You wanna see him or not?"
Maria stiffened her back and raised her arms out to the sides. Abel's eyes came alive with lust as he reached out and ran his hands roughly over Maria's body in a supposed search for concealed weapons.
"Abel," called Tommy, "You're a gonna pay for that."
Abel tore his eyes from Maria's beauty and looked at Tommy. "Then I'm a sure gonna get my money's worth," he laughed.
Tommy gripped the bars of his cell so hard his knuckles turned white. He glared at Abel, murder and hatred filled his eyes. Abel laughed again and turned Maria loose. She rushed to Tommy's cell, reaching through the bars and pulling him to her. Tommy put his arms around Maria, but continued to glare at Abel. Then he turned his full attention to Maria and hugged her as best he could through the bars. Maria put her mouth to his ear and whispered. Tommy closed his eyes, listening, smiling.
That was too much for Abel. Tommy was getting too much pleasure from the meeting with Maria. Striding angrily to the couple, he yelled, "That's enough! Visit's over." He grabbed Maria's arm and roughly pulled her back.
"No!" she cried desperately, "You said I could have more time!"
"Get out!" he shouted and continued pushing Maria towards the door.
Crying, Maria finally turned and fled. As Abel began closing the inner door, Tommy called out, "That's something else you're a gonna pay for Abel."
Abel grunted and slammed the door shut, turning the key in the lock.
Tommy laid back down on the cot, waiting for his date with the noose.
* * *
Abel shoved Tommy out the door of the jail. Tommy looked up and squinted at the sky, the brightness of the sunshine painful after the dark jail. His hands were tied behind his back and he stumbled as Abel pushed him again. He came to a stop once he caught his balance and took a good look around.
"Whoo Whee!" he exclaimed, "Looks like everyone from fifty miles around showed up to see me do the dance. Never knowed I was so popular."
Able just grunted and pushed him forward again. The crowd of towns people made a path for the two men, from the jail to the steps leading up to the gallows where a single noose hung loose and empty, waiting for an occupant.
The gallows. Tommy gulped, confident in the plan, but still . . . walking to your own hanging was spooky. The gallows stood on twelve stout, wooden legs. Thirteen steps . . . thirteen, unlucky. The steps led to the top where a wooden floor made of planks formed a large platform. The space from the ground to the bottom of the floor was open on all sides to provide a good view of the dance for all the spectators. Two beams rose from the north and south sides of the floorboards another ten feet in the air with a heavy beam connecting them. The hanging noose hung from that beam, positioned so its unlucky occupant faced East.
The people were mostly quiet as he made his way toward his future. He was well liked, always quick with a joke and a laugh, known as a good man and a good cattleman. They weren't happy that he was hanging, but the facts were facts. He had shot and killed an unarmed man and was now facing the consequences.
"Howdy Joe," Tommy said to the mercantile owner. He got a nod in return.
"Morning Mort," he said to the bartender.
"Tommy . . . I sure hate to see this happen boy," Mort commiserated with him. Tommy gave him a nod and a smile.
"Smokey, that was a mighty fine breakfast you made me. I appreciate it," he told the cranky old cook.
Smokey looked him in the eye and did something he never did. He smiled. Then said in a gruff old gravelly voice, "T'was my pleasure."
"Caleb, you 'ole coot!" Tommy laughed as he approached the blacksmith, "my horse threw a shoe two days after you shod him. I expect a free shoeing next time."
The big man nodded and tried to speak, but something in his throat froze up and he couldn't get a word out. Finally, he nodded and forced out a weak, "God be with you son."
Tommy mounted the steps, leaning forward slightly to keep his balance. Abel gave him an exceptionally rough push at the top of the stairs and he fell, landing hard on his shoulder and the side of his face.
"Here now!" said Judge Perry from where he stood on the gallows. "There's no call for that Sheriff."
Abel grabbed Tommy by the arm and hauled him to his feet. He dragged him to a spot directly beneath the empty noose and turned him to face the crowd. A slight breeze picked up from the east and ruffled Tommy's hair. Reaching up, Abel pulled the noose down and placed it over Tommy's head. As he tightened the noose around his neck, Tommy looked at him and said in a soft voice that only Abel could hear, "I finally figured it out. Hardy and me was playing cards late that night. Everybody had gone on home 'cept Mort the barkeep and he was sleeping down at the far end of the bar. I know Hardy had hisself a gun. He kept it tucked under his coat where he thought nobody could see it. I saw it when he stretched though. He drew first. I was just protecting myself. He landed on the gun when he fell and Mort never saw it. You showed up mighty quick after Mort ran for the Doc. You swiped the gun, didn't you?"
Abel looked Tommy in the eye, grinning, "Prove it boy," he whispered. Smugly he turned around and nodded to Judge Perry.
"Tommy Ray Simpson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He will now hang by the neck 'til he's dead" Judge Perry said in the most officious voice he could muster. "Sheriff, you may proceed," he said to Abel, then moved to the back corner of the gallows.
Abel walked over to the release lever that would open the door beneath Tommy's feet and took hold of it with both hands. "See you in Hell boy," he said in a low voice.
"You'll be there long before me Abel," Tommy replied.
Abel laughed again and pulled back hard on the lever. The door fell from beneath Tommy and his body dropped straight down. The gathering of people let out a collective gasp, expecting to see the body come to an abrupt halt and begin the Hangman's Dance. They were surprised though. The gasp turned into one of astonishment as Tommy's body only slowed a fraction of a second before it continued its downward journey. Tommy landed on his feet, the noose still around his neck, the loose end falling to the dusty earth at his feet.
A figure darted out from an alleyway as Tommy began falling. Maria arrived beside Tommy at almost the instant his feet hit the ground. She reached out and grabbed his arm, helping him to maintain his balance. In her other hand she slashed down with a razor-sharp bowie knife, slicing through the rawhide string holding Tommy's hands together. As soon as his hands were free, she tugged a Colt .45 from the sash around her waist and shoved it into Tommy's hands. He turned it first on the crowd. No one moved. Maria ran for the alley.
Footsteps rang out from the floorboards of the gallows above Tommy's head. He looked up and saw Abel's ugly face appear in the opening. With a yell of frustration, Abel pulled a gun from the holster on his hip. Tommy rotated his gun upward and began firing before Abel could bring his to bear. Four quick shots were fired. Two of Tommy's slugs went through the floorboards, one missed completely, the other entered Abel's gut, down low on the left side. The other two went through the opening he'd fallen through, one striking Abel in the throat, the other catching him square in the mouth and going on through the back of his skull taking brain and bits of skull with it. Abel fell hard, dead before he hit the wooden planks.
Tommy turned back towards the stunned crowd. Still no one moved. There were two more rounds in Tommy's gun and nobody wanted to be receiving the same fate as Abel.
"I did kill Hardy," Tommy explained, "but I just figured out what happened. Hardy had a gun and drew first. He just wasn't fast enough. He fell on his gun when he died. Mort didn't see it. Our good-hearted sheriff there," nodding above him, "swiped it before anybody noticed. Y'all are good folks an I don't wanna hurt any of y'all. So just stay back and I'll be a going. Me and Maria got us a plan to start up a homestead far from here. You won't never see us again."
He backed away and entered the alley down which Maria had disappeared. A moment later the crowd heard the sound of two horses galloping away behind the buildings lining Main Street.
Judge Perry walked quickly down the gallows' steps to where Tommy had landed. Several of the local men gathered around him. He reached down and picked up the noose that Tommy had thrown to the ground and examined the loose end. It had been cut almost clean through, most likely by a razor-sharp bowie knife. When the weight of Tommy's body hit the end of the rope, it broke the few remaining strands.
"Maria must have snuck up there in the middle of the night and sawed most of the way through," said Smokey.
"Yep," said the Judge with a twinkle in his eye as he tried to hide a mischievous smile, "I reckon that's what happened."
"Kinda strange how that young girl figured out what to do, ain't it Judge," questioned Caleb, scratching his head.
"Well," said Judge Perry gruffly, studying the end of the rope and nodding, "I never did like Abel or Hardy very much. They were just too damn mean." The men in the crowd nodded in agreement. "I think I'll take a look through Abel's belongings and see if he had and extra pistol. If there is, we got ourselves a closed case."
The men laughed and slapped each other on the back as they walked away, marveling at how Maria had managed to cut the rope. The rest of the crowd also turned away, talking excitedly. Truth be told, they were proud of Tommy and how he'd gotten away.
A skinny old hound dog padded across the street to find a spot of shade. The sound of the galloping horses faded into the distance. The sun beat down heavily on the gallows. A dark puddle of blood slowly grew from beneath Abel's body and a small gust of wind tugged at the Hangman's thin red hair, making it dance.