"That just ain't good enough."
The argument had been repeated with increasing regularity for several weeks. Still, no matter how hard his grief-stricken wife might try, Bill Tolliver would not be convinced.
"But, Bill, the man is going to hang either way. What difference does it make?" Elizabeth tried again.
Bill's face was set in a stern expression, as it had been since the murder. He had once been known as a happy-go-lucky sort, quick with a joke and a kind word. He was even downright mischievous at times. All of that vanished the day they laid Sam in the ground.
"He killed my boy, Liz. Our boy," Bill replied. "I don't care about some rancher's cattle gone missing. I want justice for little Sammy."
Their son hadn't been "little Sammy" for quite some time, but that didn't lessen the blow for the two grieving parents, so she left it unsaid. A darkness seemed to be resting on their home, and on both of them, as it had ever since the day a deputy brought word that their son was dead. It lifted ever so slightly when word came that the killer, a no good outlaw by the name of Jim Creech, had been apprehended, and came on again in full when Creech was released on a "not guilty" verdict. Something had taken hold of Bill then, and it continued to fester and grow into something ugly inside of him.
Sam Tolliver was a sweet child. He had gotten into his share of mischief, but what little boy didn't from time to time? As he grew older, though, a defiant streak rose up in him. He was not content with the simple life of a farmer. When he entered the early stages of manhood, he began sneaking off to town to play cards and drink liquor, much to his parents' consternation.
Then, one day, he ran afoul of Jim Creech. There were differing stories about exactly what had happened, but what was certain is that there had been some disagreement over a hand of cards. A drunken Creech drew out a six-shooter and shot the boy dead on the spot. A gun was found holstered on Sam's body - a single-action Colt pilfered from his father without his knowledge.
Creech was apprehended, and a jury assembled in short order. Since Sam's gun had not been drawn, his parents expected a fast conviction. At the trial, however, a handful of witnesses came forward and stated that they had seen the Tolliver boy go for his weapon first. Though there were others that stated they saw no such thing, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict and Creech went free. Rumor spread through the area that a considerable amount of money had changed hands to bring about this result, and it was said that several badmen known to be Creech's associates had been seen around town.
It was then that the idea took root in Bill Tolliver's mind. There was no justice for decent folk—not without money. If a man were to get any kind of justice, he would have to take it for himself. He began to wear the six-gun that had been found on Sam's remains, and Elizabeth would often catch him just sitting and staring at the weapon.
Not long after, word reached the Tollivers that Jim Creech was once again in the town jail—this time for rustling a number of cattle off of Wade Tennister, a local rancher of wealth and repute. There would be no payout for an agreeable verdict this time. The sentence came back loud and clear—Jim Creech would hang for his crime.
"When they hang him, you can watch him swing and know that Sam's killer got what he deserved," Liz said. "You will be there, and you will know."
"He'll be hanging because of a rich man's cattle, not because he's a murderer," Bill replied. "You're right—I will know. And that's why I can't let it be."
"He will have to face the Judgement," Liz said. "All men will have to stand in judgement, someday."
"Yes," Bill agreed. "One and all."
* * *
As was his routine, Bill Tolliver rose before dawn on the day of the hanging. On this day, however, he did not drink his morning coffee and head to the barn for a long day's work. Instead, he went to the corral and saddled his favorite horse, a dappled grey mare named Petunia. He had dressed in his finest clothes and, though they were nothing special compared to the finery of some townsfolk, he cut a respectable image. He climbed into the saddle, tucked the ill-fated Colt into his waistband, and headed into town.
The Tolliver farm was some distance outside of Lodestone, and Bill figured it would be a few hours' ride before he hit the town limits. He used the time to enjoy the scenery. It was beautiful country and despite the heat, and the emptiness that had grown up inside of him, he truly loved the land where he had made his home and raised his family. He looked out over the vast sweep of the plains, admired the groves of trees that sprang up here and there along the way, and listened to the murmuring of little brooks that crossed his path every so often. Birds were singing and calling in the air, and the clip clop of the mare's steady hoofbeats made for an almost soothing experience.
When at last he reached the town limits, he headed straight for the sheriff's office. Hitching the mare out front, Bill strode inside like a man with a purpose. He had a plan for the day's events and was determined that nothing would stop him. If, however, he could get satisfaction within the confines of the law, so much the better.
"Can I help ya?" said a young man sitting at a desk not far from the door. He wore a deputy's badge on his vest, and his fresh face and bright expression gave him the air of a rookie lawman.
"I'm here to see the sheriff," Bill said, matter-of-factly.
"What's your business with the sheriff, sir? Might be I can help."
"I doubt it, son," Bill replied. "They're hanging the man that shot my boy today. I want to speak with Sheriff Ferrier about it."
"You talkin' about Jim Creech?" came a voice off to Bill's right. He turned, and saw Sheriff Joe Ferrier standing in the doorway of a room toward the back of the little building. "You Bill Tolliver?"
"Yes, sir," Bill replied.
"Shame about what happened, Mr. Tolliver." There was a genuine expression of sympathy on the sheriff's face. He was a man of stern demeanor, and his appearance was that of a man who wore his responsibilities with great seriousness—starched white shirt under grey striped vest with a bright sheriff's badge clipped to the breast. He wore a white hat and had a long white mustache that twitched from time to time as he spoke. "My sympathies to you and your wife."
"Thank you, sir," Bill said. "But that's what I'm here to speak with you about."
Ferrier raised an eyebrow, but remained silent.
"They let him go, Sheriff. Money got passed around, and you know it, and they let him go. Now they're going to hang him for rustlin' some cattle."
Ferrier nodded somberly. "Yes, sir. It is a shame, but a jury of his peers said he weren't guilty of the murder. My advice is to try and find some peace, Mr. Tolliver, in knowing that he's going to swing today. You can count on that."
"Yes," Bill said, and hesitated slightly. "I want to be the one that pulls the lever."
Ferrier frowned, and his mustache drooped disapprovingly. "I understand the sentiment, sir, but that ain't possible. We got law and order here, for better or worse. Creech is going to hang, but a duly appointed hangman is going to pull that lever."
"Sheriff, you've got to understand," Bill insisted, his tone pleading, "he's got to pay a price for my Sam. If I can pull that lever, even if the books say it is over some cattle, it will go some way toward making things right."
Ferrier nodded, but his expression remained stern and unmoved. "I understand what you mean, but it just can't happen that way, Tolliver. I am sorry. Out here, the law is the only thing standing between decent folk and all the wildness of the frontier. It doesn't always work, like with your boy, and that's a shame. But we have law, plain and simple, and I have to stand by that. Every time."
Bill could see no hope for change in the sheriff's face, so he simply said, "Alright, sheriff. Thanks for your time."
He turned to leave, and as he walked toward the door he heard the sheriff say, "Hanging is at noon, Tolliver. I hope you can be there to see him swing." Bill gave no response as he stepped out into the street.
Exiting the office, he pulled out his pocket watch. Eleven o'clock. He had one hour before the hanging was to take place. One hour left before the whole affair would be over, one way or another. He had tried the law; had tried it twice, in fact. Now he knew he would have to take justice into his own hands. His wife's words echoed in his mind, pleading with him to let it be. The words of Sheriff Ferrier came to him also, urging him to let the law take its course. But the image of Sam's pallid face, lying in his casket, was there as well, holding position in front of everything else. Sam had been just seventeen years old, little more than a boy wearing a man's clothes, and he would never be a minute older.
Bill knew that he could not just let things go. Creech had blood on his hands, and he had to be brought to account for it. He checked the cylinder on the Colt, somewhat nervously, then returned it to his waistband and headed for the nearest saloon. He needed a drink to calm his nerves.
* * *
At about a quarter to noon, Bill Tolliver stepped out of the saloon and headed for the town square. A gallows had been erected there, and he could see it from the moment he strode into the street. Two shots of whiskey had steeled his resolve, and he was ready to see his plan through to the end.
A large crowd was gathered around the gallows—townsfolk come to watch a bad man meet his end. Some of them, Bill suspected, were legitimately interested in seeing justice done to someone who had dared to flaunt the law and threaten their way of life. Others were just curious or bored. Others still, he knew, came to witness the spectacle of death, regardless of the circumstances. Whatever the reason, there was a raucous energy stirring throughout the crowd.
"Bring him out!" a sweaty man with a five o'clock shadow and a farmhand's clothing shouted.
"Ain't it noon yet?" yelled a woman standing near the back of the crowd, wearing a fine yellow dress and fancy hat.
Bill stood silent, his mood in direct contrast to the prevalent attitude of the massed public. He felt no joy and no excitement. There was no righteous indignation left in him. He felt only a hollowness, and an icy cold resolve. He no longer knew whether he had come to see justice done, or simply from a desire for revenge. He only knew that Jim Creech was going to pay for what he had done to the Tolliver family, to Sam.
He worked his way toward the front of the crowd, occasionally bumping someone to the side through lack of attention. He offered no word of apology, despite the occasional muttered threat lobbed in his direction. All he knew was that he needed to reach the front of the crowd, to be right up front when Creech was brought out. He even passed by Wade Tennister as he made his way forward. The rancher stood with an impatient look on his face, waiting to see punishment meted out for his lost cattle before returning to his daily affairs.
When Bill reached his destination in the front, he could see that two deputies were already posted at either side of the gallows, Winchester rifles at their sides, white hats and bright badges shining in the noon sun. They scanned the crowd with a look of resolve, presumably keeping an eye out for any of Creech's friends that might show up and attempt to cause trouble. As he stepped into the front row he saw one of them look in his direction for a moment, then continue sweeping his eyes across the huddled mass of townsfolk.
Just then, the clock on the side of the town square opposite the gallows began to toll. Once, twice, three times . . . twelve chimes rang out as a momentary quiet held sway over the crowd. Heads turned, and Bill could see Sheriff Ferrier and the deputy he had spoken with earlier leading Jim Creech down the street toward his fate. As the striking of the clock began to fade, the roar of the crowd once again ascended and people began to hurl their scorn at the doomed man. Creech was led up the steps, accompanied by a barrage of jeers and insults, and the noose was placed around his neck.
Tolliver looked at Creech for the first time since the trial, when the outlaw had been acquitted of murdering his son. Always thin and hawkish, he looked particularly gaunt and ragged at that moment. Thick stubble covered the lower half of his face, and his cheekbones were so prominent as to give off a skeletal appearance. He, too, looked out over the crowd with cold eyes. He showed no emotion at first, but then actually gave a wry little grin and spat upon the platform with derision.
The sheriff stepped forward then, holding up a hand to quiet the crowd. "This man has been brought here today to pay for his crimes against our community. A man chooses his own path in this world, and this man here has chosen to flaunt society and its laws not just once, but over and over again throughout his life."
The crowd roared its displeasure at the accused.
"James Bernard Creech was convicted of cattle rustling and sentenced to die, to be hanged by the neck until he is dead. Make no mistake, this was not his first or even his greatest offense. He has led a life of crime and will today meet his just end."
Sheriff Ferrier turned to face the condemned. "Any last words, Creech?"
The outlaw hesitated slightly, then said, "It's like you say, Sheriff. A man makes his own way in the world and I've made mine. I ain't never done anything to no one didn't have it comin'."
The crowd hissed and booed loudly at this, and Creech opened his mouth to spit once more in their direction. This time the spittle cleared the platform and landed not far from Bill's feet, though if the outlaw recognized him he gave no outward sign.
This indignity was the final straw for Bill Tolliver. Whether it was the spittle itself, or the fact that Creech seemingly did not even recognize the man he had taken so much from, he wasn't quite sure. All of the anger and frustration—the loss—that he had felt since his son was killed burst forth in a scream of rage.
"You've got to pay for Sam Tolliver, you gutless dog!" he cried. Reaching into his waistband, he drew forth the Colt pistol and fired a shot at Jim Creech. The shot went wide, but a look of fear crossed the killer's face as he cringed out of the way that would have been very satisfying to Bill, if he hadn't gone beyond the point of noticing.
"Die!" he screamed, and fired again. This shot, too, missed its mark and succeeded only in winging Creech's arm.
BOOM! BAM! BOOM! Three shots rang out as the deputies posted at either side of the gallows turned their Winchesters on Bill. The crowd, alarmed, had already begun fleeing the scene in fear, running headlong away from the crazed man with a gun. All three shots struck true and Bill went down hard. He lay on his back, his lifeblood leaking out in spurts and staining the dirt with a crimson hue. His breathing was ragged as he struggled to lift his head for a final look at Creech, but he found he lacked the strength. He could do no more than lie on his back, gazing up at the blue sky above.
Sheriff Ferrier jumped down from the gallows and knelt next to Bill. He lifted Bill's head so he could see Creech clearly, though the sheriff suspected Bill's vision was already clouded from loss of blood.
"Get on with it," Bill heard Sheriff Ferrier say. Dutifully, the hangman pulled the lever that sprung the trap and Creech dropped to his end.
Bill Tolliver heard the creaking of the rope, and then closed his eyes.