The man on the train was very dead. The metal band of the fountain pen embedded in his throat reflected the evening light like a sunset shining off a distant lake. There was less blood than I would have guessed; just a bright bloom fanned beneath his bowtie and a thin trickle, beginning to crust, ran from the corner of his mouth. Sheafs of paper lay pasted to the car's muddy floorboards.
His killer sat next to him, six inches away, eyes closed, chin and bushy beard resting on his chest. A giant of a man, his face was mostly hidden behind his greasy black hair, hanging down like crow's wings. The killer wore the clean, plain clothes of a ranch hand: a blue chambray work shirt and jeans, faded colorless over slick bottomed riding boots. The giant seemed oblivious to the four of us crammed into the narrow aisle diagonal to him. The smell of burning coal drifted back to us as we sat unmoving in the Laramie Station.
The conductor broke the silence. He whispered, gesturing at the giant, "He been sittin' just like that since he done it. Twenty damn people in the car watched him snatch the quill from that poor boy's hand. Never said a word to him, just buried it in him right as we was pullin' into station. Didn't say a peep. Craziest damn thing I ever saw."
After, the killer had simply closed his eyes and gone to sleep, waiting, it seemed, for us to come and take him away.
'Us' was me and my two deputies, Bullington and Carter. Bullington was craven and would be worthless as tits on a bull if this went sideways, but Carter seemed okay. He was new and I'd never seen him in action, but he'd cut his teeth at Antietam and although that was a dozen years ago, I guessed he'd be just fine if it came to it.
I cleared my throat. The killer raised his head slowly and looked at me. His eyes were a queer amber color, almost golden. I saw pure evil there, like the devil had caught a ride from Cheyenne to Laramie and found himself a soul to steal. My forty-five was still in its holster. I'd learned through experience to save the iron until it was the only option. Instead, I held a coil of rope. The man the conductor had sent sprinting to the office had breathlessly told us that this man was the biggest goddamn cocksucker he'd ever seen, so I'd brought the rope. Good thing, too. The man wasn't exaggerating. No way this giant would fit in the iron cuffs.
Carter moved away and slid along the front of the empty seats until he was facing the killer directly. If the man had a gun and drew quick, he might get one of us, but he'd die where he sat. But the killer's eyes never left mine. Bullington and the conductor had inched their way back toward the exit and seemed ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.
"Did you kill this man?" I finally asked. The question seemed absurd, given the circumstances, like asking a puppy sitting next to a turd if he'd shit on the carpet, but it didn't seem like he was going to volunteer the information on his own.
The killer glanced at his dead seatmate. If he felt any emotion, he didn't show it. Instead, he smiled at me. His teeth were tombstones, big and white and straight in the black bush of his beard, and his smile was genuine: the smile of a child getting a kitten or a man seeing his bride on his wedding day. I had a flash, sudden as a lightning strike, that I'd seen that smile before. The man was thirty, maybe younger, at least a decade younger than me, but I would've remembered his sheer size if I'd seen him before.
"You caught me," he finally said. "Brilliant detective work. Just stunning. Don't know how you solved it."
He held his hands out to me, still smiling.
"You armed?" I asked.
"Had a pen somewhere," he said, patting his breast pockets. "Oh yeah, there it is." He looked at the dead man then fixed his golden eyes back on me.
"Carter," I said without turning away from the smiling giant. "I want you to shoot this man in the face if he so much as twitches. Got it?"
Carter pulled his Colt as I cinched the rope tightly around the giant's wrists. My hands trembled with the realization that he was big and strong enough to kill me with his bare hands if he took a mind to it, but he didn't move; he just kept the same satisfied smile on his face. When I stood him up his head nearly brushed the seven-foot-tall ceiling, but he followed docilely enough as I led him out of the car and along the wide boardwalk that flanked Main Street. Carter followed, pistol trained on the giant's back, and Bullington brought up the rear. The four of us naturally fell into step as we walked, as is often the case with former military men, our heels beating a steady rhythm on the pine boards that might have been a death knell. For whom, I couldn't have said.
The Sherriff's office was most expensive building in Wyoming territory. Completed in the summer, it was a squat brick building, plain and square and handsome in an austere sort of way. The office area in front, overlooking Main Street, had three plain desks. My own small office was tucked into the corner. The back of the building, accessed through a thick oak door, housed six small—and currently empty—holding cells, three on each side of a wide walkway. The black iron bars still gleamed, the paint not yet worn away by the desperate hands of desperate men.
My prisoner refused to tell me his name, but was otherwise the model of good behavior, as far as that goes. His name didn't truly matter for his punishment; justice wasn't delayed for something so trivial, else we'd never get a name again, but leaving that end untied was shoddy detective work, and I vowed to do my best to pry it out of him. He was almost certainly wanted somewhere for something, and it would be the decent thing to do to give that community, wherever it was, closure.
He readily admitted to killing the man on the train—a newly hired newspaperman, it turned out—and signed the matter-of-fact confession I wrote out for him with no fuss. He told me the scratching of the newspaperman's nib got to be too much to bear, so he silenced the pen. It was full dark by the time I got done with all the paperwork, never my strong suit.
Laramie, like most frontier towns, moved quickly where justice was concerned. Develop a reputation as soft on crime, the thinking went, and you'd soon find yourself a haven for all manner of thieves, cutthroats and bandits. Better to hang first and tease out the details later. With the signed confession and eyewitness accounts, it was not deemed necessary to have a jury trial. The killer still refused to give his name but, the judge ruled, he was to be hanged at noon on Saturday anyway, three days away.
* * *
Saturday dawned clear and cold. The October wind carried the cruel bite of winter down through vast fields of useless brown grass, around the great boulders the Indians worshipped and through the needles of towering Ponderosa Pines, then down past the scrubby little mesquites to the valley floor, through chinks in log cabins and cracks in pine siding and through poorly sealed windows and doorframes, and finally into the bones and hearts of men, where no fire could keep the chill at bay. Winter came early here, and it was a hard time, and men became beasts in hard times.
Bullington, the craven, stayed with me in the jailhouse while Carter oversaw the erection of the gallows in the town square and kept an eye out for anything out of place. I couldn't shake the feeling that something about this didn't add up. I always tried to treat condemned men with compassion, but I also understood that a man with nothing left to lose can turn desperate in a hurry. And this particular condemned man looked strong enough to pull me right through the six-inch gaps in the bars if I let him get a grip on me, a thought that crossed my mind as I handed his bowl of stew through the waist-high horizontal slot in his cell. I returned with a chair and my own bowl of the same stew and sat, safely out of arm's reach. A death sentence often gets a man to talking, and I thought I'd redouble my efforts to squeeze a name and maybe a motive from this stranger, who had barely uttered a word since the train. Bullington stayed cloistered in the front area.
We ate in silence, our spoons scraping against the wooden bowls. Finally, the stranger spoke.
"What time you got, Sheriff?"
I pulled my pocket watch from my vest. "Almost ten. Two hours to go."
"You still want my name?"
"Only if you want to give it. Hardly matters now."
"You want to know why I done it?"
"Sure I do. Whole town wants to know."
I sat still. I didn't want to say or do anything that might break the spell and turn the man away from telling me what he wanted to tell me. What would possess a man— who, in his brief confinement and appearance before the judge, didn't seem any crazier than me—to kill a stranger in cold blood on a crowded train? And who was he? Was he running away from something, or toward something, or was he just one of those poor men, condemned by some twist of fate, some defect of the brain, to eventually break with reality? I'd certainly seen my share of those types, both during the war and after: men who had seen too much killing and experienced too much horror until something just snapped inside them, but this man wasn't old enough to have fought in the war.
"Tell you what, Sheriff. I'll give you both answers. Who I am and why I really killed that fella. But first, I'd like to tell you a story."
"I come from down Arkansas way," he said. My pulse quickened. I'd spent the worst months of my life in Arkansas. Every man who has experienced combat loses a little bit of himself. To be able to kill a man—or many men—and not get torn up about it, you must first convince yourself that the enemy is less human than you are. By convincing yourself of that, you become less human yourself. Some of us could snap back out of it, once the fighting was over, while some never could get over it. But everyone that's experienced it, I suspected, came out the other end changed in some way. Life takes on a bit of a different meaning when you've seen the other side, and I'd done things in Arkansas that I tried not to think about now.
"Little town," he continued, a southern accent that I hadn't noticed before creeping into his cadence. "'Bout a hour's ride south a Little Rock. Grew up on a plantation. Nothin' grand, raised some livestock, a little rice, a little cotton. Couple a slaves to work the land. I can't say we always treated 'em right, but then, I don't know nobody who did, no matter what they say now. We treated 'em like property, 'cause that's what they was. My Daddy was a believer in settin' examples. You take the whip to one back, a hundred mouths stay shut next time.
"I was eleven when the war came. Too young to fight. But Daddy and my two brothers, they joined right up. Daddy got some friends a his to join up too, and some other townsfolk. They voted him Colonel. I ain't never been prouder or more inspired than seein' my Daddy in that beautiful gray uniform. The stripes on the arms looked like they was spun from pure gold and the brass buttons caught the sunlight and seemed to glow with they own fire. I never touched it, 'cause I knew I hadn't earned it, but it looked like freedom to me. I never wanted to be nothin' except a soldier like Daddy, fightin' them Northern tyrants. I wondered when Daddy'd be shipped off to go storm Washington. When the victory parade would be. If I'd get to go to Richmond for it. But instead, you know what happened, don't you?"
I suddenly found that my brain was unable to transfer a coherent thought to my mouth.
"That's right," the doomed man continued, voice rising. "The war came to us. Invaders came to our land to steal our property. To rape our women. Northern cowards came marchin' through, stealin' our crops, burnin' whole towns to the ground. My Daddy fought back, like any good Christian man would. He let those Federals have it, right in the damn teeth. Daddy's regiment was outnumbered four to one, but he didn't care. He pushed those goddamn cowardly feds all the way back to Missoura. He used to tell me a Southern man was worth two a you Northerners so it didn't matter none that we was outnumbered. But he was off on that score; we're worth least four of you, but then what did the North do? Well, not the righteous thing and accept defeat. No, some a you boys came creepin' back in the dead of night."
My bowl trembled on my knee, sloshing broth onto the pine floor. Every hair on my body stood on end. The realization hit me. The smile, from the train. It was the same smile, the same perfect white tombstone teeth beneath merciless golden eyes, like piss flecked with blood. This was Big Jim Turner in the flesh. Not the Big Jim, of course. Big Jim was deader than Johnny Booth. His son, then.
"Hung every rebel officer you could find, didn't ya?" the man continued. "You grabbed my Daddy right from his own home in the middle of the night. You snatched him and his two boys, and you strung em up like goddamn runaway niggers."
The Red River Campaign had been a brutal slog through the muddy Arkansas swamps. The fighting was hot, muddy and utterly without mercy. Both sides suffered massive casualties and captured whole regiments at a time. Confederate leadership ordered their men to slaughter the captured black Union troops by the hundreds, in order to discourage more slaves to escape and join the fighting. Those murdered troops were brave and decent men, many of whom I'd fought beside since Vicksburg. After we finally crushed the rebel forces at Pleasant Hill and forced a retreat, capturing damn near a whole Army Group, Lincoln and Grant authorized the parole of the confederate officers: vow to put down their arms and not pick them up again, return home, free their slaves and all was forgiven. They were free men. Being good and loyal soldiers, we obeyed, but the decision didn't sit right with us.
I also become a free man at that time, in a sense. The campaign ended and the Confederacy was collapsing everywhere, despite what Big Jim told his son. Sherman burned Atlanta and was marching to the sea. The war would be over in months, if not weeks. Six of us, all battle hardened officers, vowed to make things as right as we could. We grabbed our rifles and lit off south on horseback, light and fast. We were deserters, I guess, in the strictest sense of the word, but ours was a mission of justice, even if no one had given us orders. We were only gone two weeks, but in those weeks we became more beasts than men. We aimed to track down and kill the worst of the paroled rebels, those who had executed our friends, and we did. We found them, back on their plantations or small farms, back to their old lives, and we butchered them.
We wound up murdering—there was no other word for it—seven rebels before the burden of the task got too much to bear and we split up, drifting back to Union camps individually. We'd planning on doing more, on executing our brand of justice until the war ended or we'd run out of murderous traitors to kill, but the screams of the wives and the begging of the children grabbing at our legs and the pathetic nature of the rebels, looking more like old worn out farmers now than soldiers, got to be too much to bear. I never told a living soul about those two weeks in Arkansas, and I don't believe anyone else in the group did either, but word circulated soon enough, through the North and the South. We were famous, even if no one knew who we were.
"I watched you, Captain Fields," Big Jim Turner's son continued. "I watched you in your ugly fuckin' blue uniform. I saw you drag my Daddy and my brothers out in they nightclothes. Couldn't even let 'em put on they proper uniforms. I was clingin' to the magnolia tree next to my bedroom window, hidin'. I watched you string 'em up. For years, I wished I woulda stayed inside, made you drag me out too, kill me alongside my Daddy and my brothers."
Tears streamed down his face and his voice cracked with emotion. I remembered how I'd slipped the noose around Big Jim's neck all those years ago, how I had to sort of toss it over his head because I couldn't reach all the way up, and how I worried his sheer weight would cause his head to pop right off his shoulders. I remembered how, with his hands bound behind his back in the last moments of his life he'd given me that tombstone smile. Whatever his last words would have been, they were choked off as four of us—and it took four to be sure to lift him off the ground—pulled the other end of the rope and strangled him to death. His head didn't come off after all, and his smile died a few seconds before he did. He went out gurgling and kicking wildly, like they all did.
"But later on," his son continued, "I came to a understandin'. I was left alive for a reason. I can still set things right."
I couldn't argue with his claim, just as I couldn't explain to him how I'd been less than human then, for those few weeks back in '64, trying to right wrongs that could never be righted. Besides, I didn't suppose I needed to explain it to him. I suspected he knew the feeling exactly.
He was standing now and gripping the bars with his huge hands. Snot bubbled from his flared nostrils and I could see him as he was when he was a boy, except now his bulging muscles threatened to rip the seams of his shirt and I wondered, briefly, if he'd be able to bend the iron bars if he set his mind to it. Outside, the church bells tolled ten o'clock. This would all be over in a couple hours. Whatever satisfaction he'd gotten from telling me this story would soon be snuffed out. I hoped it brought him the peace he sought, and I hoped I could continue not thinking about Arkansas, though I doubted that would be possible now.
"My name is James Oliver Turner, Junior," he continued. "Son of Colonel James Oliver Turner. Brother to Henry and Robert Turner, Twenty-Seventh Arkansas Infantry, Confederate States of America, all murdered by you on the second of December, 1864, and I came to exact my family's rightful revenge!"
As the sound of the bells faded, the thick door separating the offices from the cells opened. I stood in a crouch, hand on the butt of my Colt, but it was just Bullington, looking even more pale and nervous than normal. I let out an uneasy breath.
Bullington moved quicker than I'd ever seen him move. I had only time to flinch before the butt of his revolver crashed against my temple. The world moved out of focus, like I was looking through wax paper, and I sat down hard. Blood trickled inside my collar as the pistol crashed down again. This time the darkness was complete. After a minute or an hour, from far off, I heard a gunshot. I was dragged by my feet, fading in and out of reality. My head struck the lip of the cell painfully and the iron door slammed shut with a clang.
In the silence that followed, I touched the right side of my head gingerly. My fingers came away warm and wet and slick, but nothing seemed to be broken. I had my gun belt, but the gun and keys were gone. I was looking at the locked cell door from the inside. Memories swam back slowly. Bullington. I turned my head painfully to the right. He lay beside me in a pool of blood, a dime sized hole in his forehead. His dead eyes stared blankly up. Betraying me was probably the bravest thing he ever did, I thought bitterly.
I sat up slowly. The world tilted sideways, but I managed to keep upright, both hands planted firmly on the floor. Other than a pain so intense it hurt to move my eyeballs, I seemed mostly in one piece. The floor between the cells was a galaxy of blood. The puddle from my wound shone wetly next to the chair, aside a much larger puddle and great thick ribbon where Bullington's body had been dragged. I heard Junior Turner rummaging around the offices, opening and closing drawers and doors. Finally he returned, wearing the same smile as on the train: his Daddy's smile.
Bullington's gun belt was looped over Junior's shoulder and across his massive chest. The Colt looked like a toy wedged under his armpit. Junior held my steel cigar cutter, working it open and closed, the sliding metal making an ominous snicking with each movement. I stood on unsteady feet.
"Let's start small," he said, grinning. He held the cutter open. "You left or right handed?"
"Let me go and you can still get out of this alive," I said thickly through a haze that coated my brain like a coastal fog.
"Alive?" Junior spat back. "Alive? Haven't you been listening? I died on the second of December, 1864. I just wasn't brave enough to face it then. These last twelve years have been dedicated to this exact moment. We're both going to die today, friend, but you're gonna go out screamin'. Way I see it, I got probably a hour before anybody gets too concerned and starts trying to bust the door down, and I mean to make it the most satisfying hour of my life."
Dread crept through me as I realized he was right. The courthouse would be sending a priest over for last rites, but I doubted he'd raise much hell if no one answered the door. Carter wasn't scheduled to meet back here until an hour before the hanging, so Junior's timeline struck me as accurate. No doubt Bullington had filled him in.
"How'd you get Bullington to turn?" I asked, trying to stall.
"Every man has a weakness, Sheriff. It was a matter of finding his. Bullington was a coward, did you know that?"
No point lying now. I nodded.
"Well, what's a coward working a dangerous job want more than anything else?"
"To be out of danger."
"Exactly. I offered him a way out. Union Pacific stock certificates. Enough to keep him away from danger for the rest of his life. I have the stock, too. But I'd never give it to a coward." He spat through the bars at Bullington's dead body.
I dangled my hands outside the bars with a casualness I didn't feel, trying to keep Junior talking, thinking of a way out of this. His huge hand shot out quick as a snake and clamped down hard on my left wrist. My arm stretched painfully against the bars as he turned his back to me, trapping my elbow and threatening to rip my arm away from my shoulder. His squeeze was a vice. I forced myself not to scream as he clamped his huge hand over mine and felt the small bones in my hand break with a series of snaps like kindling. He worked my pinky finger away from the fist and held it in place. I heard the snick of the cutter more than felt it. Hidden from view by Junior's giant body, it felt more like squeezing than cutting, just past the first knuckle. Had I not heard the severed end of my left pinky fall to the bloodstained floor, I wouldn't have believed he'd done it.
Now I did scream.
"Oh, there's the sound I've been waiting to hear! Let's do another one!"
My broken and mangled hand could no longer resist. This time he extended my ring finger. I felt the cold metal of the cutter as he placed it low on the finger, all the way down on the base. This cut wasn't as sure. The cutter bit painfully into the finger as he squeezed, but it didn't go all the way through. He grunted as he adjusted the cutter.
"You stop squirmin' now, or I'm gonna snap the bones first."
As Junior struggled to get a new bite, I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself and think. I heard my blood dripping on the floor. As he adjusted the cutter, I took stock of the spartan cell. A wooden bench, bolted to the floor, ran along the back wall. A piss bucket stood in the corner, out of reach. A dead deputy, stripped of his gun. My own gun was also gone, but I had my belt.
Junior wiped his hand on his trousers and went back to work on my ring finger. He rocked the cutter forward and back and I heard the bone snap as I worked my belt buckle free with my right hand. The pain shot through my arm and up my shoulder. I clenched my teeth and, still letting out small screams, pulled the thick leather belt free and coiled it around my untrapped hand. Now the part I would only get one chance at. As I steeled myself, my ring finger fell to the floor with a soggy plop.
"Ah! That's nasty. Two down!" he exclaimed, letting out little moans of ecstasy. "Only eight to go. It's not so bad, is it?"
Junior momentarily loosened his grip as he moved to the middle finger. I pulled my arm back with a sudden jerk. He grabbed at it again but, slickened with blood, it slipped from his grip. It smashed painfully against the bars, but I ignored it. I punched my right hand up through the bars and tossed the buckle end around his head. Reaching blindly with my mangled left hand, I caught the buckle way up high, at what I prayed was his neck. I pulled both hands back through the bars, forcing Junior against them. I climbed the cell, one foot then the other, until I was suspended off the floor, arching my back and pinning the giant against the outside of the cell, my feet splayed against the horizontal crossbeam. I ignored the agony as blood shot from the stumps of my fingers and the broken bones ground together. He fought back fiercely, straining forward with inhuman strength and pulling desperately on the belt. Inch by inch, I felt myself being pulled forward. He worked his fingers between the belt and his throat, easing the pressure. His breath returned in ragged gasps. Soon, he would gain the space to free himself completely. My life hung in the balance. We both strained, he with his feet planted on the floor, pushing, bent at the waist, ass against the bars as he bent farther and farther forward, me with my back arched, leaning back, muscles aching, feet planted against the horizontal brace.
His right foot lost grip first. The worn bottom of his boot lost purchase on the slick blood. He tottered, just for a moment, then his left foot slipped. I heaved myself back, pulling him back against the bars with a crash. He slid down, feet scrambling madly for purchase, until the belt caught on the horizontal brace, his ass suspended inches from the floor. He gagged and clawed at the belt, digging furrows in his own neck. He brought one hand down toward the pistol, but quickly brought it back up to try and ease the pressure on his neck.
Finally, Junior stopped struggling and went slack. I continued to hold the belt until my muscles felt ready to fail, then let go. We dropped like sacks of coal, one on each side of the bars. He didn't move. I reached through the bars and found Bullington's keys.
I shuffled from the cells through the front office and pulled open the outside door, meaning to track down Carter. There, silhouetted in the blinding sunlight stood a priest, fist raised as he was about to knock.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," I said, and collapsed.