The minister held the closed bible in his lap. He hadn’t bothered to open the book, but he had quoted endlessly from it. Matthew Swanson didn’t mind, because it meant this was a preacher who knew the book by heart. He figured anyone who took the time memorizing it must believe at least some of what was in it. The men were sitting quietly in Matthew’s cell. Matthew looked from the minister to the deputy standing by the jailhouse door pretending not to overhear. The minister was young and didn’t seem to know what to do next, so Matthew broke the silence.
“Reverend, when this is over and something’s got to be done with my body, I want you to make sure I’m buried in sacred ground.”
The minister took a moment to answer. “If it were up to just me, Matthew, of course. But executed criminals are buried anonymously in the town field. It’s not consecrated ground.”
Matthew took that in and nodded. “That’s what I thought, Reverend, but I still got to ask and I’ll ask again. I’m paying for another man’s crime and that’s bad enough. I don’t want to rot in unholy dirt.”
“Matthew, if it was . . .,” began the minister.
“I didn’t kill my wife, Reverend. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, that’s the one I would never do. Ellen was a light straight from heaven that shined on me day and night. I’ve been in darkness ever since I come home that day and found her body in our bed.”
The Deputy made a noise that could have been clearing his throat, but Matthew knew better. He looked at the floor. “I’ve done plenty, alright, and I probably deserve to be punished for it all. Maybe it’s waiting for me in the hereafter. God knows what I’ve done and He’ll have His say after I’m gone. But He knows all and He’s got a right. You don’t know nothing.”
“What don’t we know, Matthew?” asked the minister. Matthew heard genuine concern in the man’s voice.
“We did things to make you weep, Reverend. Things I would rather have died than let Ellen know.” He looked at the minister’s face. It was the face of someone who thought he could take on the worst of the world and come out clean after. Matthew had known one or two like that. But people had a way of leaving stains on each other that no amount of elbow grease and good intentions could get out. Matthew wasn’t sure how much he wanted to stain this sincere, young man. But, then, he was a grown person and if he didn’t yet know his limits, well, that wasn’t on Matthew.
“God can forgive anything, Matthew, so long as you feel real remorse for what you’ve done. We are all sinners in need of being saved. And we can be, if we truly want to be. I want to help you find that forgiveness and peace before your end, Matthew. I want you to know that you can tell me anything. What don’t we know?”
Matthew looked to the deputy who stood with his arms and ankles crossed. Matthew gestured for the minister to lean closer. He kept his voice low so the deputy couldn’t hear and told a story in grim detail. He took his time, spared nothing, and told the whole truth as he remembered it. When he was done, he said, so the deputy could hear, “And that was only one time, Reverend. There was plenty more, if God needs to hear it.”
The minister took a moment to reply, his face looking a bit pale to Matthew. “How many others, Matthew?”
Matthew shrugged. “I never kept a tally, Reverend. I suppose I could try to tell you about all of them that I remember and you could count for yourself. We never talked about what we done after we done it. We just moved on and never went back. That was one of the rules.”
“You say ‘we’, Matthew. Who were the others?”
“Not others, Reverend. Just him and me. It was only ever him and me. He made the rules and they worked good, kept us out of trouble. No lawman ever even talked to us and we never had a reason to talk to them. The only time I ever talked to the law was when I came in to town to tell the sheriff that someone had killed Ellen. You see how that worked out.” The deputy chuckled.
“Who was he, Matthew? It might do you good to let someone know. It might go to your account if he was brought to justice.”
“I can’t do that, Reverend. His sins ain’t mine to confess.” When Matthew had left his friend, he had had no hard feelings toward him. It was just time to go. Matthew had been drinking too much and feeling bad about what they were doing, so he had just packed up one night and rode quietly away from camp. If he had wanted some justice to go to his account, he thought, he could have put a bullet in his sleeping friend that night. What he had wanted, though, was some peace, which he had had when he found Ellen.
The minister was about to say something when the door to the jailhouse opened and two armed men walked in. The sheriff exchanged glances with the deputy as he walked over to the cells. “Preacher, I don’t like to interfere with someone doing the Lord’s work, but we are nearing the appointed time.” The minister seemed unsure what to do.
Matthew said, “Reverend, there’s the Lord’s work and there’s the government’s. I think the Lord is going to have to wait His turn.”
The minister put his hand on Matthew’s. “I’ll be with you the whole time, Matthew, if you’d like me to be.”
Matthew nodded. “For what little good it’ll do me, Reverend, you go right ahead.” The minister stood and stepped to the door of the cell. At a gesture from the sheriff, the deputy came forward with the keys and opened the door to let out the minister. Then the sheriff instructed Matthew to turn around and put his hands behind his back. Soon enough his arms were shackled and he was standing outside the cell. The sheriff went to his desk and took some papers from a drawer.
“I reckon we’re ready,” said the sheriff. He opened the jailhouse door, stood there for a moment, then gestured for the others to follow him out. When they were outside, the sheriff led the way, then came Matthew, who was flanked by the deputy and the other man. The minister followed.
The scaffold, which Matthew had heard them building yesterday, was nearly surrounded by people. Children were running around or sitting on their father’s shoulders. Everyone seemed done up in their Sunday best. Some women twirled parasols and picnic baskets had been set on the ground here and there. There was nothing like a hanging to get a town’s attention, Matthew knew.
The group of men had paused just outside the jailhouse, but the sheriff said, “Alright,” and they started toward the scaffold. Some in the crowd had caught sight of them and were pointing them out to the others. Though Matthew had not been a regular in town, he recognized many of the people. People who had referred to him as, “that man the Bascom girl married”. He had been proud to be that man. That was a man who had tried to make something of his life, small though it was.
A shaggy dog jumped onto the scaffold. Matthew watched it, full of life, run around on the platform. Some in the crowd laughed until the sheriff and the deputy chased it away. When the scaffold was clear, the sheriff led the men onto it. The deputy pushed Matthew into place beneath the noose, but left the rope hanging free. Matthew wanted a drink. He felt a little ashamed for wanting one, because he had been weak before and it had cost him so much. But a man who was facing his last moments, he figured, maybe had a right to be weak.
He hadn’t had a right to be weak that day he had been in the city to sell his harvest. Prices had been good. He had managed a good crop, so he had been flush with cash. It had been more money than he had seen since the old days when they would, mostly, just take it. But he had earned this money with a strong back and the love of a good woman. Some of the other farmers there, men he hadn’t known, had talked him into celebrating with them. He’d been weak to agree.
The sheriff cleared his throat and began to read from the papers he had brought. There was Latin and legal-talk nobody understood, but there was no mistaking the phrases “guilty of murder” and “hanged by the neck until dead”. There was hollering and insults from the crowd. Matthew looked straight ahead, over the people, not one of whom had really cared about “that Bascom girl” until she was gone. Not like Matthew had.
But he had been weak and had gone to the saloon with the farmers. For a time he had kept his promises to Ellen. But a pretty, young woman with red cheeks, big, brown eyes, and thick, black hair piled on her head, had put a hand on his shoulder. She had introduced herself and acted like she was interested in him. She had been prettier than most of the whores Matthew had ever seen. With his friend not there to enforce the rules and Ellen back home and out of sight, Matthew had been weak.
First, he had started drinking and had broken that promise to Ellen. When he had been drunk enough, he had gone upstairs with the woman, had paid her money, and had broken his marriage vows. When they had finished, Matthew had gone back to the bar. One of the farmers had seen him come down and had come over to slap him on the back and offer to buy him a drink. Matthew had nodded. When he had finished the drink, Matthew had left the saloon for his wagon and had headed straight out of town.
The sheriff asked Matthew if he had any last words to say. Matthew paused a moment, then said he did. The crowd became hushed. He didn’t really know what he was going to say. He looked to the minister. “Before we came out here, I was talking to the Reverend. I told him I wanted him to make sure I was buried in sacred ground.” This caused a stir in the crowd. “I know that ain’t likely. Right or wrong, you all will decide what happens. I’ve been a bad man. I can’t deny that. But I’ve tried to be a good man, too. And, maybe, that ought to count for something.
“I loved Ellen more than anything. I know I was a disappointment to her sometimes. But ain’t we all, sometimes, to somebody? I hope I’ll see her again so I can ask her forgiveness for those disappointments. But I won’t have to ask forgiveness for her death, because I did not do that. For that my conscience is clean.” More insults came from the crowd.
On his way back home, drunk though he had already been, Matthew had stopped the wagon to climb in the back and grab a bottle of whiskey he had stashed there. It had been his intention never to drink it, but only to have it there as a reminder. He had climbed back into the seat as he had pulled out the cork with his teeth. The bottle had become half empty by the time he had arrived home after midnight.
The house had been dark and he had sat in the wagon for a long while deciding what to do. Finally, he had decided just to go in. If she woke and saw that he was drunk, he would confess everything. Throw himself on her mercy. He had opened the door as quietly as he could. He had crawled into bed next to her, all of his clothes still on. He had reached for her and his hand had felt an unexpected wetness.
He had stumbled from the bed and did his drunken best to light a lamp. He had known, though, what he would find in the light. He had had too much experience of it. Despite that, he had crawled back into bed, had held her, soaking his shirt red. Hours later he had gone to town, still drunk, to talk to the sheriff.
The deputy put the noose around Matthew’s neck and whispered a last insult. Matthew didn’t really hear it. In his mind he heard the sheriff tell him he was under arrest. He heard the jury foreman say that they had found him guilty. He heard himself make promises to Ellen. He figured now that Satan must have been laughing when Matthew made those promises. He was no good and never would be, try as he might. Only it didn’t seem fair that anyone else had to pay for his weakness.
Ellen was buried in the churchyard. They had never let him visit the grave. They would never bury him next to her. Maybe he should never have tried to be better, he thought. He heard the creak of the trapdoor lever moving. And then, like on that miserable,drunken night, the world fell out from under Matthew Swanson.
Michael Calkins has worked at Powell’s City of Books for nearly three decades. His stories in this and previous issues of Deep Overstock are his only published work so far.