Samuel Dorner was eight years old when he witnessed his first public hanging from the withering execution oak tree on a dry, dusty afternoon. The hanging man swung like retribution’s pendulum and the youngster, having scrapped hard with the other children for a front row view, took a good long look into his lifeless bloodshot eyes, buried deep into the sockets of a face with a serene smile. Samuel surmised that the last thing the dead man saw was a cheerful crowd with all their attention fixed on him and he took a minute to imagine this experience for himself. A smile grew across his lips and he turned to scan the crowd for his daddy, at the back of the rabble, laughing with the grinning Sheriff Peterson, who stood ogling women and winking at other fellas who’d come and pat him on the back from time to time.
The preacher, a wiry elderly gentleman dressed in black cloth, shepherded the children away from the creaking corpse as soon as its bowels emptied. They followed him to a small patchy mound and sat scattered about his feet. The preacher, in a stern, solemn tone asked, ‘Now children, what have we learned from what we witnessed here today?’ He inspected the youngster’s faces; some drying their eyes and others with blank expressions etched into drained complexions. Apart from Samuel Dorner who was smiling and shuffling grit between his fingers. ‘Why are you smiling, Samuel?’
‘The man. The man was smiling. And he was dead. It’s funny’. The preacher’s brow furrowed and he flicked off beads of sweat with the tip of his thumb. ‘You think he was happy, Samuel? To die like that for being a thief? His last moments on God’s beautiful land, his brothers and sisters applauding his demise, you think he found it enjoyable?’
‘I’m sure he did. Why else would he be smiling?’
‘The muscles in the face please themselves when you cannot control them no more young man, and whatever your face says when your heart stops beating means absolutely nothing to nobody. Now, again, what have you learned, boy?’
Samuel’s smile faltered and he narrowed his eyes; flicking them toward the preacher he said, ‘I learned that if you’re gonna steal some, you’d best be smart enough to not get caught. And when you want it to be your time to go you might as well go on the tree. Did you see how many people came to wave him away? A thief, too. When my momma died, but three people was there besides me and my aunt. Daddy was away at the saloon and you wasn’t there neither. I heard you say that time to daddy that you couldn’t do nothing but pray and for him to find you when he had the money to do the funeral’. The preacher considered the boy and chewed on the inside of his cheek. He shook his head and dragged his stare away from Samuel to address the other children, none of whom were listening. ‘The lesson is, don’t steal. Hello? Are any of you paying attention?’ he croaked. He looked at their blank faces again and then turned towards the saloon. He shouted, ‘Oh fuck it’, and wandered off muttering under his breath.
Samuel found his father swaying drunk and cackling hysterically at something the Sheriff, also staggering, had whispered in his ear. They set off walking to the newspaper office and he trailed them, kicking up dust clouds in the searing heat.
The gruff beard of the newsman covered his lips and beady blue eyes stared over top and he said to the sheriff, ‘What am I publishing about the dead man?’ The Sheriff nudged Samuel’s father’s ribs and said,
‘He’s definitely dead. The Doc says he’s pretty sure it weren’t no hunting accident’. They burst out laughing and the newsman looked back and forth at them wearily, ignoring the boy lingering at the doorway.
‘Sorry, Tim. Just couldn’t resist. Okay, that dumb motherfucker –‘
‘Dumb? You mean mentally challenged. The fella wasn’t all alright was he, Peterson?’
‘Well, no. Anyway, that…the fella was caught in the act of stealing old man Steinlen’s cattle. The old man caught him good right in the middle of his misdoings and the…fella shoots old man Steinlen. We hear the gunshot and surprise him, take his gun off of him and haul him into jail. He don’t admit to nothing, just sitting there with a goofy grin on his face all the time. Finally me and the deputy is in with him and we says did you do it and the boy says yes. End of story.’ The newsman looked up from his writing and said,
‘And it’s right isn’t it that old man Steinlen was shot in the back?’ Sheriff Peterson stared at him, itched his chin and said,
‘Well, yes that’s right. He must have turned for some reason, maybe to fetch his gun to scare the thief away or whatever and he took one in the back.’
‘So, he was shot in the back, then you showed up and grabbed the thief.’
‘Problem here Tim? It’s the way it occurred from my memory, should it serve me so well’.
‘No, no problem here Sheriff. One final question though. Old man Steinlen, not having any offspring and all, got all that land and cattle and that big old house. Now, with nobody to look out for it, who’s it gonna fall on for upkeep?’ the newsman asked.
‘Well it’d be a dereliction of my duty to let that go to waste and ruin wouldn’t it. I’ll burden myself with that responsibility from this very day. You go on and announce that in your story, Tim.’
The newsman considered the Sheriff, smoothed his beard and said, ‘It’s much roomier than that tin can you’ve got now ain’t it just Sheriff? And I suppose you’ll be consoling the dead man’s grieving mother.’ Samuel watched as his father snickered and nudged Peterson in the ribs. Peterson struggled to contain his dirty grin, coughed and said,
‘Of course. My burdens are many but I’ve still got the back to bear it’. The newsman put down his pen, stood and said,
‘After all, he was only seventeen. And mental wise, barely a boy. I’ve everything I need. Thanks for your time Sheriff Peterson. Deputy Dorner’. He opened the door and stared at the floor as they left the room. Samuel could sense something wasn’t right and looked at the newsman as he followed the men out. The newsman took a deep breath and forced a wisped smile at the boy before closing the door.
Samuel thought back to the smile splayed across the dead man’s face and hard as he tried he couldn’t stop tears from rolling down his cheeks. He dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve, following his father and the Sheriff back into town. They arrived at the wooden platform of the saloon entrance and let the door swing without turning back. Samuel watched them disappear, trudged around back and lay atop the hay wagon, drifting into restless sleep.
Shouting and scuffling followed a barked, ‘You have troubles, take them elsewhere now, you hear? This joint’s a peaceful un, nevermind you’re the law. Should know damn better you pair of no good sum’ bitches’, from the proprietor. The deputy and the Sheriff stumbled out and growled at each other, waking Samuel. He climbed down, brushing hay off his clothes and through bleary eyes watched the two men wrestle. The Sheriff shoved his father to the dusty ground and turned back to the proprietor to tell him to watch his mouth however he’d already gone back in, tiring of their antics.
Samuel’s father scrambled back to his feet and hissed, ‘You got to give me something. I stood with you every step of the way God dammit. Shit, if I wasn’t there, you’d never have got the retard anywhere near Steinlen’s.’
‘Shut up boy, I owe you shit. You almost fucked the thing up anyway, not even man enough to shoot the old man proper like. In the back? I mean, that’s stupid. You’re almost as dumb as that retard. I owe you shit, fact is you nearly blown it. Now calm down. Tell you what, you can sweeten up the retard’s mother, I’ll leave that to you? How’s that?’ The Sheriff offered with his dirty grin. The deputy thought for a moment and returned the smile.
‘Throw in a few Longhorn Steer and I’ll shake your hand on it’.
‘Hard bargainer. Slick boy, I’ll give you that. Done deal partner’ he slurred. They shook hands and walked through the town with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders.
Samuel thought about following until the image of his mother came to mind. He fought off nausea and ran to the news office.
The dead man’s mother peered out of the window of her timber shack and trembled as she watched the two lawmen stagger up to her door. They walked into the house and sprawled out adjacent chairs. Deputy Dorner slipped immediately into a drunken sleep. The Sheriff grinned at her. She folded hers arms and shakily said, ‘Just what the hell do you want’.
The Sheriff straightened out his clothes and said, ‘I’m awfully sorry for your loss Ma’am. Must be hard losing the boy. I mean, he weren’t goin’ be up to much being simple and all, but..still. I mean you got to see it from my viewpoint, Ma’am. He was bad. And this is my patch and I gotta keep everybody safe, you know?’ She listened intently as her rage built,
‘How dare you. My boy was innocent as the night is dark. He was innocent, innocent by God in ways you’d never be able to comprehend you drunken fool’, she cried, pointing. The Sheriff held up his hands, smiled and said, ‘Well, whoa now Ma’am. I was just trying to explain my position. And I gotta tell you I thought the same to be completely honest. See I figured he’d not even know what to do with Steer if he even had stolen ‘em. But it was my deputy here’, he said, nodding his head to the snoring form, ‘that dealt with it. Dealt with everything. I mean he told me he’d had to go hard on the boy for the confession to flow, you know. Busted his hand real bad on your boy’s thick skull’, the Sheriff let out a laugh, ‘but I had my doubts. And in my eyes, and indeed in the eyes of Our Lord I’ve come to offer you a tooth for a tooth.’
L.A. Sykes is a writer from Greater Manchester who’s works include his debut short story collection Through A Shattered Lens, I Saw and the novella The Hard Cold Shoulder out now in all formats through Thunderune Publishing’s crime noir arm. He’s been up at Shotgun Honey, Powder Burn Flash and others and has an episode coming up at Mark Slade and Frank Larnerd’s Blackout City Podcast while he works on his first novel.
The Sheriff reached to his hip and handed over his Derringer to the weeping woman. ‘I tried to figure a way to let the law deal with this bastard but they won’t believe the only way I know your boy is innocent is because I can see the truth in your eyes when you say so Ma’am. That won’t move no judge in this great country though, not a one. So, I offer you the chance to even the score and we’ll concoct a little tale between ourselves as to why you ended up shooting him’. The Sheriff smiled.
The woman stared at the smile, sobbed and shot the sleeping Deputy three times in the chest as the door burst open. She dropped to her knees crying, the gun skittering into the corner under the dead man’s chair. The newsman pointed his revolver at the Sheriff and said, ‘Move. I’m begging you to go for that there gun. Reach for it, go on. I want the satisfaction of blowing your head to bits instead of waiting on the Marshals’. The Sheriff twisted his face, looking back and forth between the gun on the floor and the gun pointed at him. He spat and put his hands on his head. The door creaked open and Samuel peeked inside. The newsman shouted, ‘Out, boy!’ and kicked shut the door.
A week later Samuel fought the other children to get the best view on the front row, yards from the withering oak tree. The crowd roared and cheered. Samuel looked into the swinging Sheriff’s dead eyes, down to the smile fixed on his mouth. The badge on his lapel glistened in the noon sun. The preacher rested his hand on his shoulder and asked, ‘What have you learned from this here event, boy?’ Samuel said,
‘I learnt a smile don’t mean a damn thing’.