Do not let them steer you. You have a single purpose, and consequences will trail you like buzzards when the line is crossed.
Four-by-fours were what he ordered. They bungled it up every time. Four-by-fours and two-by-sixes and hemp rope thirty feet in length. He would not supply it. In Redwood, they had rough-sawn lumber and a few pulled-up floorboards, and he had to go to the saloon to find the man in charge and complain about the materials. There was something about hanging a man that made people prone to mistakes. As if the silent part of the soul was honor-bound to sabotage it.
He brought his tools: a mallet, a hammer, auger, spirit level, ruler, plumb bob, planer, saw and square. The leather fold he wrapped them in. Taken all together, his tools, sawhorses and personal effects weighed about a hundred pounds. His jenny, Dorcas, was accustomed to the weight.
In Tucumcari, they had given him half the lumber he had ordered. "Not enough for a long drop, not enough by a mile. You can do a short drop without a scaffold, just throw the rope between the rafters or over an oak branch. You still have to pay my fee; I've made two days to get here."
But they liked the construction. It certified the ordeal, made it seem legal. They said they would find the lumber. The prisoner could wait another three days, and he did.
There was a purpose for every board. The joinery was simple but sturdy. The last smell the prisoners smelled was fresh cut pine and the soap on the knot behind their left ear. He made sure there was no creaking of the boards. For a man prospecting for any sense of hope, false hope was cruel.
Among other measurements, the prisoner had to be weighed. He would not do it himself.
"Sheriff ain't here. Took sick last week; ain't seen him." The postal clerk had a lazy way of standing out in the street, as if he were desperate for a countertop or, lacking that, a post of any kind to lean on.
"Then fetch his deputy."
"He's five miles out of town. Just to weigh a man he should spend a half a day traveling?"
"I don't undertake the particulars. I build you the scaffold. I test it, and I instruct your hangman. I depart before the deed."
"Deputy won't do it, judge is over in Albuquerque. Mayor . . . " The clerk looked around at the near-empty thoroughfare and shrugged.
"I don't undertake the particulars."
That was roughly how he came to be standing in the jail in Socorro. The prisoner stepped out of the cell, a young man, long brown mop of hair. His leathers were crusty from the mud they had dragged him through. The barber had brought over his scale and stood chewing a toothpick in the doorway. The lawyer stood beside him, cleaned his spectacles with a soft square of flannel. The postal clerk leaned on the open window sill. The ruler had the man at six foot two.
"Weigh him with the shackles. Won't risk a surprise."
Shackles on his wrists and ankles, the young man stepped on the scale and the bar thunked to the side. The carpenter avoided his gaze while he measured the mass of the man before him, sliding each weight to the right until it balanced level.
"I never seen myself weighed before. What's the verdict, Red?" When the prisoner looked up, his eyes were a searing flash of lapis, the way a finch could dart before you like a bright shock in the browns of a landscape.
He had never looked the prisoner in the face. He focused on the weights, the calculation not coming to him.
"Shut your mouth," said the barber.
"Hundred sixty-three. With iron shackles at wrists and ankles. Don't go switching to rope the day of, on some romantic historical whim, you wouldn't be the first to try, nor the first to regret it."
He could put up his tent next to the jail, near his tools and the livery where Dorcas was stalled between his flea-bitten Pinto and Carl's swaybacked Paint. He began laying out the boards in the single-man pattern out on the side of the thoroughfare as the sun was setting, and lit some lanterns to arrest the dark.
It was one of those gnawing facts to know, that it took a young ponderosa, of some forty years, in order to hang a man. It should be thirty feet high, stripped, planked. It was enough to construct a small scaffold with ten steps, a single upright, the horizontal and the brace. If they paid more, a rail could be added. For multiple hangings, it was two verticals and braces, and room for up to four, costing maybe two or three trees then.
This was for one man, this young, blue-eyed man with the mud-crusted leathers. What sins he had committed, of God or man, was not the carpenter's business.
He hadn't felt confident about his work since Carl had died. After that, there was no one to second guess the work, to double check the measurements. It was as if he had stored part of his memory in his partner, and left it under a pile of rocks at the foot of a well-joined wood cross outside of Cimarron. He had taken time to carve the name with the tools he had for fashioning scaffolds.
The one tiny window facing the alley was the jail cell's outlet for light and air, and the young man squeezed his face against the bars to watch the carpenter come back to his canvas for tools. The carpenter lifted a board and the hammer dropped from his belt onto his toes.
"Looks like you could use some help, Red."
He picked up the hammer and set the board on the sawhorses to measure.
"My daddy was a natural builder. Owned a hardware business for a while," the prisoner said.
The carpenter lost his concentration measuring and measured again, the flat pencil in his teeth.
"A man might call it old fashioned, but he liked mortise and tenon for a strong joint."
Carl used bridle joints for most scaffolds, and so he used bridle joints. It must be strong enough to hold the judgment of men. Often the jailer, the preacher, the mayor and the prisoner stood there all at once. They had heard about a scaffold collapsing in the act outside of Santa Fe, the work of some handyman who made cabinets and coffins and probably thought he could scale up a door frame into a scaffold. The preacher was killed in the fall, while the prisoner attempted a clumsy escape, still pulling the broken crossbeam behind him from the rope around his neck before he was shot between the shoulders. Shameful, Carl had said, trimming his nails by the fire. The dilettante should have slunk away and never touched a plank again.
The prisoner hung his forearms out through the bars and kept talking from inside. "We built a barn or two, good sturdy hay barns back in Oklahoma. One day he went and hung himself from one of the beams. So what I'm saying is one of them joints will hold."
"Shut up there."
"Can't bear to know the man you're hanging? The money you make don't spend as nice when it talks from the grave, does it?"
Never talk to a prisoner, never look him in the eye. You won't do the work you ought, nor near as well. Your reputation will crumble thereafter, and rightfully so.
"You know that from experience?"
"Me, no." The prisoner gripped the bars again and pressed his face through as far as he could get. "But I am a card cheat, I will admit to that. Additionally, I drove a herd of cattle that weren't strictly my own property from Los Lunas to Magdalena, that being the hanging offense in this case. But I was not the brains nor beneficiary of the operation, so I am no more guilty of the offense than that mallet is guilty of making the gallows to hang me by. The Van Zandts, that's who should be hanging, but don't bother telling that to the judge." Silence. "Given another night on your side of the bars, I'd undo what I done, if I could, that's the God's-honest truth of it."
"Don't make me fetch that barber to shut you up. I will, one more word."
"I know what you're thinking, the mallet ain't got the brains to choose what it does, I do know that. But consider the choice a man has if he's gone hungry or thirsty: his choice is death or duty to his needs. And here it was death all along." The prisoner's voice choked up. "Damn my impulses!" he sobbed. "And not another chance to do right."
With the uprights clamped, the carpenter began to saw the grooves, and could not hear the prisoner going on over the noise. When he turned out the lamp, the little window was empty.
In the morning, he continued, and the usual onlookers made passing comments on the grimness of the construction, and hid their exaggerated horror behind handkerchiefs and gloved hands. He had once mused to Carl that it felt in some ways they were building a stage.
Carl had kept sawing for a minute, then stopped to wipe his face. I have no doubt that we are.
Three weeks later, he had curled up with an ache in his guts, and he was dead by morning.
* * *
The lawyer came by with the man who had taken an oath to serve as the one to pull the lever. Some men took to the idea with a certain reserved relish, some watched him demonstrate the pull as if their souls depended on getting it right, and some masked their discomfort with jokes and goofing. He had rehearsed and refined his speech as he made the distance between towns, and as he recited it here, this man, a rancher in his mid-forties, a married man by appearances, seemed to catch on to what he had agreed to, the evidence in his paling face, his dry swallow, his widening eyes.
"Once you have done it, it is done. I have no authority over the process you set forth, but I recommend a meeting of the eyes of the administrators on the platform that all are agreed as to the timing and the act. Immediately thereafter, once you have locked eyes with them all, pull medium-hard—as though you are slowing your team, not with such vigor as to rope a steer, and not tugging your wife's tender hand." He used other analogies depending on the profession of the hangman, be it pulling molars or ringing church bells. It was, being specific, 58 pounds of pressure to spring the trap door. Too much enthusiasm risked a malfunction; delicacy risked drama or unmeet comedy.
"Have you ever hanged a man you pegged as innocent?" The rancher's voice was the echo of the carpenter's voice on the road to Acoma. Ahead of him, Carl's hips and back swayed with each sauntering step of the Paint. His answer was Carl's practiced answer, spoken out to the flats and the mesas rising beyond.
"I don't commit the hanging. I come by the order of the town to build the right structure for the job. I leave the judgment and the duty to the discretion of law-abiding folks, trusting they will do their job as well as I have done mine. I am just the same as the rifle maker, or the stone the axe is ground on."
In the jail window, the prisoner's hands clutched the bars.
The congregation now dispersed, the carpenter got back to setting up the frame and got on the braces to test his weight against it. Funny how the view from that altitude gave him a little tip of vertigo. Had never happened before. The frame creaked, settling.
"My name is Jake Tyler, in case you wondered," the prisoner said as he stepped down.
"I had not."
"Well in case you had." He watched the carpenter root among his tools for what he sought, not finding it in the assortment there, flipping over the leather fold, searching the ground around, standing up winded with his hands on his hips.
"How about you, Red? What do they call you?"
The carpenter took another dive into his effects. There was the plumb bob, used in cathedrals to measure the uprightness of the spires, and in the humble gallows. Straight up is straight down, heaven and hell. Makes all men consider their sins, somewhere beneath thought.
"Well hey. There's something we got in common. More than one thing, you could say. I had a brother named Carl. Died back in Arkansas."
"What's the other thing?"
"The two of us are in a desolate land, brother. We don't mind being loners, but it gets into your bones out here. Invites a man to get wrapped up in something he didn't mean to, just because he was lured by a bit of company around a fire. You think about it, you'll find it's true. I'm the living proof."
The carpenter found the square and spirit level and balanced himself on the frame. The bubble rocking back and forth and settling just a little queer. He adjusted the bolt on the crossbeam a couple of degrees, and the arm settled into the brace more tightly, and the bubble this time was dead center. Repeating this on all four sides meant all adjustments affected the next, and it was a good bit of dancing around the whole scaffold to get this bit right and that bit right and tuning them all like the strings of a fiddle until they were balanced and the bubble resting center on every straight, or close enough.
He took his tools back to the drop cloth and pitched them down.
"Is that my lasso?" The arm pointed out at the thick, fresh cut of hemp rope coiled and hanging, drying out in the sun.
"That's the rope, yes."
"Damned if it isn't a little funny, though, me roping beeves, and getting roped myself as a result."
"It isn't funny at all. You young men don't think about the consequences." Lightning blue eyes, smiling at the bars. He was hardly old enough to have had a sweetheart, let alone to leave one missing him.
"I would now, Carl, you could bet on that if I wasn't sitting here out of luck."
"Whose fault is that?"
"Well Jesus, Red, you don't have to twist the knife."
The platform planks went in next, and he stuffed wads of cotton in his ears to do it. It could have been the sun, the altitude getting to him worse up here than he'd felt in Taos, but the metallic strike of his hammer on the nails was a sharp ping and starting to make his brain ache. He stopped; no, the sound was only the report of his hammer.
Numb-headed with the cotton in his ears, he felt like he floated back to the leather drop cloth and got another handful of nails. His pulse whooshed when he stood and he grazed his cheek on the adobe side of the jail. He thought for a minute he had laid his effects out too close to the window, and took a quick inventory of the assortment. The window was high, and small, the odds unlikely that Jake had fashioned some way to get at his things. He was getting paranoid, that's what.
The lawyer came by with the washerwoman to collect Jake Tyler's clothes, and a set of poor-box clothes to put on in the meantime. He stood at the open door half in and half out, checking on Jake with a glance now and then.
"Looks like you know what you're doing," he called over.
He pulled up the last board to nail down, and dug the cotton out of one ear. "Like to think so, anyway. I've built a few by now."
"Your own design?"
There was a lawyerly tone in his voice, something that made it seem likely he wasn't passing time but marking it.
"My old partner's. He built over forty in three states. Ain't heard of one failing yet, if that's what you're sniffing out."
"In short, he's got a working design," said Jake from inside. A shirt and pants were tossed to the doorway wadded in a ball, and the washerwoman took them. "No need to worry about any pain and suffering here. I trust my soul will be squoze out my stunned mouth before the rope constricts."
The lawyer wiped his glasses and curled them again behind his ears. "You wouldn't be able to show your face again if you built a dud. Mistakes lead to the cruel and unusual. As long as we are of one mind on that."
He spent the next day nailing in the steps and the railing. He strung the rope, and—the townsfolk loved this part—made the dummy of a hundred and sixty pounds in sand bags in a gunny sack, the rope around it, to test the trap door. The thud made them jump no matter how expected it was. One woman shivered. Jake Tyler watched, and someone shouted over it must be making him shiver in his boots watching.
That afternoon, the window was dark as Jake Tyler sat inside, not making his usual remarks. The lawyer brought over his final meal from the restaurant across the street, some cornbread and barbecued beef ribs, and he and the deputy stood in the jail waiting. The good humor was gone, as was his appetite. They left him with the cold plate, and the evening air, sweet with sage, was cool as the deputy locked the jail doors.
"So that's it, Carl? That's my scaffold?" Jake's voice from inside the jail was small.
And he was struck by the sadness in his voice as he rolled out his sleeping mat and started a little fire for his cook stove. "Think of it as a train platform, not so differently constructed. Taking you from one place to the other. We all have to go there someday." He cleared his throat, wiped his nose on Carl's old handkerchief.
The jail window was empty. The fire didn't want to stay lit in the cold air, kept dying away. There was something substantial in the air commanding attention. The Pueblos might blame a spirit, something that didn't want to be ignored. A few times he opened his mouth to say something, cleared his throat, and didn't find the words.
From the jail: "Well you did the job, Red. If you say your scaffold will take me one place to another, that's what I'll go up there thinking."
A breeze put out the flame. He stood up defeated, and after lingering frozen, wondering what to say or do, found himself walking through town. In the saloon, a chandelier gave off a low light over an empty round table, and he felt invited to sit there. Took off his hat and set it on the table, smoothed out his sweaty hair. Avoided the stares of the other men inside, the townsmen keeping to each other. Over on the flower-papered wall, a single picture was hung up high, angled down and crooked a few degrees. Of a coast line somewhere, water and whitecaps, steep bluffs like mesas. Water blue as anything he had seen. Recalled the prisoner. He tested out his name silently, Jake Tyler.
"What was that, honey?" A woman with an apron around her little waist stood beside him. He cleared his throat, wiped his dry lips on the back of his hand.
She leaned one hand on his table. "Bet you worked up a thirst today. I've got just the thing. It'll slake you right through and cure a headache." She patted him on the shoulder as she left, and returned with a glass of cool beer, along with a bowl of boiled peanuts.
She leaned on his table, seeing how he liked the beer and taking a minute for herself away from the bar. "That'll be one 'thank you,'" she said.
He wiped his mustache clean. "Excuse me. Thank you. Sorry."
She winked at him. "I can always tell who has been out of civilization on his own for a while. We're quick to lose our customs."
"It's very good, thank you."
"You all striking out alone, coming back like starved cavemen. I had one customer who used to show up sometimes, had nothing but himself and his mule and no more than a bedroll, guessing by his appearance. I think he spent so much time without a conversation partner he forgot basic speech. But he would endure the teasing of any man in here as long as he could just set near them for a while, sat himself down at strangers' tables and they would make fun of him until I had to tell them to stop."
"I suppose I look like the lonely type to you."
She rocked back and smirked. "You can still make a little small talk. You're not too far gone yet." She took his empty glass to refill it and perched on his table when she set it back down. "I'm Eliza." She held out her hand in a manly way.
"Now we've made friends, and you can always say you know someone in this town."
* * *
It was upright like a church spire, as it had to be. A church spire and a long arm pointing away, as if commanding him to leave now that his work was done. The mechanism worked, a switch from one track to another. Three days after he had arrived, he rolled up his things and gave Dorcas more time at the trough while he worked. They were already preparing for the day. The washerwoman brought Jake's clothes, clean and pressed. The deputy arrived in his own good clothes, the rancher was late, and the preacher paced on the boardwalk while the lawyer leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, casually watching Danny packing up.
He was down into the valley four miles already by noon, the bells faint in the distance, or perhaps just his imagination. As he rode, with Dorcas trailing, his mind was forming the notion of building a giant scale, one that could hold all the different choices of men, and then his mind was on Jake Tyler, his shirt washed and white in the noon sun, breezing against his chest and arms, untucked from his trousers, with his wrists and ankles shackled, and of the knot being fitted against his neck, and the drop to the sandbags not very far. How the preacher spoke out some last prayers not watching the crowd, not looking at the words, losing his place in the prayer, and the judge afterward, clearing his throat, announcing the charge, and the rancher there to do the deed, staring at the lever suddenly paralyzed by the full weight of 58 pounds of pressure and the gravity of his volunteerism. The people in the thoroughfare billing their hands over their eyes in the sun, squinting. The young man facing them, white shirt blazing. In a split second it was over, and for more than a split second, the consciousness of everyone there was stunned blind by the act of taking a man's life, the reality they were never prepared for. They watched but could not react as the young man's boots landed on the sandbags stacked one level too high, and he reeled back and slipped his head out of the stiffened rope and kicked off the shackles he'd chiseled through. Time stood still as he darted eight feet away to the waiting Paint and raced down the alley out of town on the valley road. In the time it took for someone to unholster a gun, he was gone.