Pastor Collins raised his sallow hands signaling pallbearers to lower Lester Smith's coffin in the marked grave of Bleakvilles cemetery. A smell of fresh soil waft through the air mixed with cut grass surrounding his interment. Craving booze, pastor Collins ignored his jaundice look and took a sip from a hidden flask. He watched as townsfolk made their way to the Community Negro Baptist Church. There they mourned Lester's death and ate comfort foods like fried chicken, dumplings, apple pie, and potato salad.
Mayor Edith Fowler dressed in a gray dixie hat, white blouse and black skirt for the occasion. She pulled a long stem rose out the pocket of her open vest and matching boots. A pricked finger drew blood, spotting the blouse near her heart. After buttoning the vest to conceal the blemish, she tossed the rose in the grave on top of the coffin she had specially built. Sealed before the ceremony, no one saw what was left of the colored man's body that was beaten and whipped by a mob two days ago.
"No peace in life. Have peace in death," she prayed.
Edith put on her octagon glasses with gold forged frames. When her eyes adjusted to clarity she looked at a family photo of the Smith's before tossing it in the hole as well. Lester's wife and two children fled town right after his body was found. The value of their lives was worth more than the possessions they left behind. A smell of retaliation ran through the air, putting fear in civilians. Bleakville lawmen stood on high alert. Sheriff Tuney spotted the mayor leaving the gravesite and called her out with urgency. Startled, she locked eyes on the briskly walking blond man coming towards her, stirring up dust as he approached.
"Mayor, I'm calling a meeting at the courthouse. I want Bleakville town heads to meet me there lickety-split. This is a matter of life and death for our town," he insisted, blue eyes staring her down. "You best show up too," he said, with contempt. Edith kept her head low and said nothing.
"Your colored life is on the line for what you did," she felt he wanted to say.
* * *
Bleakville town heads filed in the courtroom. Sheriff Tuney Moonbay, Marshal Pete Doyle, Pastor Steven Collins, General Store owner Ewald Bensen, Blacksmith Arnett Hedley, doctor, and mortician Ingram Wardell assembled. The men that kept her town running stood before the mayor, a woman, the only colored in the room. Her clammy hands clasped together to avoid shaking as her heart pounded and breath shortened.
"Did you disremember widow Norma Thorton, the owner of 90 acres and the 40 cattle heads that help feed our town?" Edith spat out before she could stop herself. The sarcasm she was famous for escaped her lips, unable to be reeled back in.
"She was the one that instigated a riot when her husband Sam was killed," said the sheriff. "Then she got the owner of the Rusty Spur to start a petition that got a white man hung and Lester killed. That colored gal is not welcomed here," he fumed. "Let's git started boys," he said while directing the men to maneuver tables and chairs together, deliberately cutting communication off with Edith.
She started to tell the sheriff "You're so weak north of ya ears that you couldn't lead a horse to water, no less a meeting," but thought better of it.
Sheriff Tuney took the front and center seat, a move to show he was now calling the shots. He passed a document around for the others to see. It was a proclamation for the arrest of Mayor Edith Fowler, signed by the governor of Pennsylvania. The paper reminded Edith of the petition her townsfolk signed a month ago requesting to have swift justice done to a man. The difference was this document contained a raised seal stamp and was signed by the governor himself.
As the sheriff started the meeting, someone knocked hard on the courtroom door just before entering. Florence, the Rusty Spur barmaid balanced a tray of glasses and several bottles of whiskey as she made her way to the court table. Brown, blue, and gray eyes ogled her hourglass shape and brunette hair. Lust turned to disgust when her long locks betrayed the woman, revealing a hideous scar on the right side of her face as she put the glasses down.
"Oblized Miss Florence. You may leave. I'll settle up with you after the meeting at the Rusty Spur," said Sheriff Tuney.
"But Miss Mcintyre requires I bring compensation back with the tray," she said diplomatically as Pastor Collins was the first to reach for a bottle, pouring a big gulp.
"Maybe you didn't hear right correctly," said the sheriff. He walked toward her with a menacing swagger and pointed a finger towards the door. "You best skedaddle. I'll settle up wit that painted hen boss of yours when I'm done," he urged, his voice growing louder with each word.
"Yes sheriff," Florence answered as she bolted through the door without looking back. She considered herself lucky those men only wanted booze and let her go. Satisfied watching her race away, the sheriff closed the door, filled a glass with whiskey and hovered over the seated businessmen and mayor.
"Let's weigh our options. We could git some money and personal things together and git her outta town quiet like. Or we wait for the governor's men to bring her to trial for dereliction of duty in another jurisdiction. Either way will be hard," Sheriff Tuney added.
"What do we do about the hanging crew coming up from New Jersey? They want justice now, not a trial. And they will be here in a few days," remarked Arnett.
"We could put her in jail for her own safety," said Doc Ingram.
"That dog won't hunt. She won't last a day in there," corrected Marshal Pete, remembering how he aided a mob removing Maverick from the same jail at gunpoint.
A high pitched screeching sound came from the mayor's chair when she suddenly pushed back, stood up, and pounded on the table. "SHE HAS A NAME!" the mayor yelled as her nostrils flared. Edith held tears in check but not the raw vocal emotion of everyone talking as if she weren't present. Everyone stared at the mayor, now standing over them.
"Edith," the sheriff said as he slowly stood up also. "The governor wants you arrested for the lynching of Maverick Lawson on your watching eye," he reminded. "We are hoping to keep you outta that situation. And there's the New Jersey storm coming our way in the form of a neck-tie mob. If we don't hand you over to them they will burn down the town in retaliation . . . so forgive us if we don't address you proper like," mocked the sheriff.
* * *
At the Rusty Spur, widow Thorton sat at the bar, exhausted from tending to her livestock. Norma's husband Sam, killed by Maverick, earned her the moniker. Her dirty denim overalls and blue cotton shirt looked out of place on the colored woman in the bar. She was grateful most patrons were at the church paying last respects to Lester Smith, one of the colored men that partook in the lynching of Maverick. Florence overhearing talk about the widow warned she best wait for the meeting to be over before trying to talk to the mayor.
"They been in there quite a spell," said Florence as she cleaned glasses behind the bar. "The mayor will fill us in when it's over," she continued.
"I hear they got a bounty on the mayor's head," chimed in Lucille Mcintyre, owner of the bar. She had bought the Rusty Spur with money earned spending time with men.
"If I had let matters be, the mayor wouldn't be in this spot," the widow said as she kicked the stool she sat on causing dried up mud on her boots to sprinkle the floor like sand. "But I have a plan. Something I learned from my grandma. I want to make things right, but the mayor must back me for it to work. As soon as that meeting ends, call her out, and Blacksmith Arnett. I'm gonna need him too."
* * *
Within 48 hours Bleakville came under siege. In the cover of the night, the Bleakville businessmen were tossed in jail with the marshall and wounded sheriff after a brief shootout. Several New Jersey henchmen stood guard and mocked the town heads standing in the overcrowded cell.
"I'd offer you boys some drink, but you only got one chamber pot to piss in," joked one of the Jersey men as the others laughed out loud.
Men ate, drank and caused a ruckus at the Rusty Spur. Several fought for a turn with Lucille's painted ladies. The demand for flesh was so high that Florence the barrister was forced to take up with men at half the price on account of her scarred face. Lucille tended the bar while Florence took on two out of towners. One of them left an upper bedroom and pranced down the stairs wearing just a wife beater and carried coins. He dropped them on the table.
"Whiskey, a full bottle this time," he said. "And let me borrow a hat for a spell."
"To cover yourself?" Lucille asked.
"No, to cover that heifer's face," he said as he went back up the stairs with a bottle and a 10-gallon hat.
More men came into the bar, this time with the New Jersey lynch mob leader, Vasil Huges, a name Lucille and her ladies were familiar with. Vasil was the man responsible for a mob beating Lester to death when he was questioned in Gold Rose County and had gotten away with it. He came up to the bar and sat down with three men. His brown eyes looked through her as she stared back at the unwanted patroon. Lucille didn't have any more women available if he wanted one for his boys. The ones she had were bruised up and worn out. Terrified, she envisioned herself on her back, with a line of men waiting a turn. His words snapped her back to reality.
"I was told you know the whereabouts of that colored mayor," Vasil said over the noise of the bar.
"I might know, If I can get that bounty on her head," Lucille suggested.
"I'll see you get the bounty. As long as I get to burn her alive," he declared.
"She's hiding in the Funeral Parlour, waiting for your men to leave town," Lucille revealed as she poured the four men each a shot of whiskey with shaky hands.
"If that's true, you'll have the coins as soon as I lynch her behind this nice establishment," he chuckled while he searched Lucille's demeanor for motives. Finding none, he asked: "Why you giving the mayor the little end of the horn?"
"When Edith became mayor, she gave the job a lick and some promises, but she didn't keep any. She caused all the trouble you see in town. All she had to do was wait for the sheriff and let justice be done," she lamented while pouring Vasil more whiskey.
"It's all 'cause Edith had a rough growing up. Got passed around a few slave owners that liked youngins. When she thought one of Bleakvilles boys was touched wrong she let Maverick swing. Truth be told, that kid was stretching the blanket. I'm sure he wasn't telling it right. But what's done is done and I want that bounty," she said without guilt. Vasil finished his second drink as his men pushed back what was left of their first. No one paid for the liquor.
"Let's take a walk over to the Parlour," Vasil told his men. He looked at Lucille. If I don't find what I'm looking for . . . me and the boys will pay you a not so friendly visit," he promised her as hard eyes undressed the voluptuous woman before they headed out.
* * *
Vasil's men surrounded the Funeral Parlour. He placed a man by the south side window and the back, even though there was no exit. He stood by the front door. More men had guns drawn, waiting for instructions.
"You, go fetch the mortician from jail. His name is Ingram. I want to know if he's in on hiding the mayor," Vasil told a blond henchman then turned to another."And you, go over to General merchandise and buy enough oil to burn the Parlour down if need be," he told a stockily built man."And you," he said to another, "go fetch that painted lady Lucille. Bring her to me," he directed the last man.
"If the mayor got away, I'll pass Lucille around to the boys, then burn down the Parlour for my troubles," Vasil promised himself as he loaded his gun, preparing to go inside the building.
He looked through the side window of the Funeral Parlour but a bloody smear on the glass hampered viewing. Frustrated, he kicked open the unlocked front door. A stench of death stopped him in his tracks.
"Good God!" Vasil said, holding his nose.
"Did she kill her fool self?" said a ponytailed man following behind Vasil. He covered his mouth and nose with a hand but kept his gun out. As they walked the smell of death became stronger, causing ponytail man to vomit. The only light inside came from the door kicked open. A buzzing sound like a thousand flies was heard but Vasil couldn't locate the source. Ponytail put his gun away and wiped spittle from his mouth as he swiped at flies swarming the room. They continued looking around.
As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw a row of chairs on the left and right side of the Funeral Parlour. Sitting in the chairs were several rotting corpses in various stages of decomposition, held together by deteriorating clothes. In the center of the floor was an octagon drawn in blood. Human skeletal bones connected two points like the hands of a clock. Flower arrangements made of intestines hung on a closed casket that sat on a wooden table in front of the circle.
"Dead coloreds . . . having service? Who's leading it?" Vasil stammered. Then he heard the coffin unlock. The top half of the specially built casket creaked and squeaked unused hinges as it opened. The contents were fully visible even in the dim light. Vasil and ponytail saw a body wearing a gray dixie hat, gold frames, and white blouse. It slowly sat up.
"She come alive!" yelled ponytail as both men fired at the body, fear causing them to miss the mark. Bullets bounced off the steel-reinforced casket hitting chairs, corpses, and the Parlour walls. The men backed out of the building still firing. The flash of gunfire illuminated the room enough to see the body lay back down.
"Burn it!" Vasil hollered at the men standing guard. "Burn it down! If anything comes out... shoot it!" he ordered as the men threw oil around the building, through the front door, and set it on fire.
Lucille and Ingram, tied to a pole, gasped at the burning Parlour. Vasil cut the two loose and helped Lucille to her feet as townspeople came out from their homes to put out the fire. Vasil's men prevented them from starting a bucket brigade, so all just stood by and watched it burn.
"Is the mayor in there, Vasil?" asked Lucille, terrified as the Parlour burned.
"She is," he answered. He thought about those gold frames and the body laying back down in the casket. A sight he would never forget. "She's in there with four corpses, having some kinda . . . something."
"Oh, God!" Lucille cried out, hugging Ingram tightly as flames engulfed the whole building, turning the beginning of dusk into a bright orange night.
"God had nothing to do with what I saw in there," Vasil remarked. "And . . . I'm a man of my word. I'll go over to General and fetch the bounty I promised," he told Lucille, still looking at the burning Parlour.
"Won't be anything left when that fire is out," Ingram rambled as the heat and flying ash pushed everyone back.
* * *
A horse and buggy rode away from Bleakville. Looking back briefly, she saw an amber light of something ablaze. Edith, wearing dirty denim overalls and an old blue cotton shirt carried food, water, and a gun in a wood chest in the back of the buggy.
"Judging by the fire, I'd say all went well . . . or to hell," she said to herself.
"I'll have to give thanks to widow Thorton one day. She knew Vasil was a superstitious fool and would be scared of the bodies we set up in the Funeral Parlour. When I get further away I'll stop and say a prayer for the bodies I had dug up to make Vasil and his Jersey men think I was coming to life, leading the dead. One day I'll thank Arnett too. That blacksmith fixed the casket with springs making Lester's body in my clothes and glasses stir up and down. Bless that man and Lucille with her ladies keeping the men off-kilter. Everyone will think Lucille turned against me but she played a part in the plan too.
"I have to make it to Gold Rose County. Then take a train using the widow's name out to another state. I will start a fund to build another town with my cut of the bounty Lucille will send to me. I will not fail this time. There will be justice for every color man and woman in my new town . . . or there will be justice for none."
Edith continued on the dirt trail using the clear moonlit sky to guide her, thinking only about the 4-day journey to Gold Rose County.
"Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions."
~ T.S. Eliot