Not being one to like crowds much, Hiram Mitchell had stopped his horse down the street, far enough to be away from the people and close enough to see the scaffold. He checked his watch and found it was 11:40, which was a little early to his taste since they weren’t meant to hang the prisoner until noon. But so long as no one wanted to talk to him or take the time to be friendly, Hiram Mitchell was satisfied to sit in his saddle and wait.
A fly took up residence around the right ear of his horse and its buzzing and bothering set the horse to twitching its ear. When the fly wouldn’t go away and the horse wouldn’t stop twitching, Hiram Mitchell snatched at the insect and caught it in his fist. The horse’s ear became still and Hiram Mitchell knew he had made the right choice. He crushed the fly in his fist then opened his hand and flicked the corpse off his glove. So long as no one came by to bother him . . . .
Hiram Mitchell had never been in this town, though he had been around it. When he had heard that his old friend, Matthew Swanson, had been arrested for murdering his own wife, Hiram Mitchell had wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings from a distance. So he had taken a room in a boarding house run by an old woman. From there he had read the papers and kept an ear open for any gossip from the townsfolk. But now that they were going to hang his old friend, Hiram Mitchell decided it would be worth coming in so he could know with his own eyes that Matthew was dead. It was a shame, really. Matthew had been the best friend Hiram Mitchell had ever had. The only friend, if truth be told. But life was full of unpleasant necessities and watching an old friend hang turned out to be one of them.
The crowd around the scaffold was thickening, but was still safely far from him. There was nothing in Hiram Mitchell’s experience that could draw folks out like a hanging, unless it was fireworks. People were dressed in their Sunday best and some were carrying picnic baskets, looking to make a day of it, apparently. Hiram Mitchell reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a handkerchief that was wrapped around some vanilla cake the old woman at the boarding house had given him. She told folks she had bought the house with money her husband had left her when he died. But Hiram Mitchell knew an old whore when he saw one. She must have done alright for herself, though, to afford a place like that boarding house. And if she had been half as good at whoring as she was at baking, he could believe it.
He pinched off a piece of the cake, put it in his mouth, and savored it. He made himself wait three minutes before he pinched off the next piece. If he could, Hiram Mitchell decided, he would make the cake last through the hanging. If there was one thing in the world he could call his own it was self-control. Matthew had never had any, really. The both of them would have been dead at the end of a rope years ago if Hiram Mitchell hadn’t had self-control.
Matthew had stuck with the rules, though, even when he had started drinking too much. No matter what they had done, they had never gone back to the place they had done it. They had seen a lot of the country that way, and since there was a lot of country to see, they had never been bored. And they couldn’t take anything that someone might recognize later and raise suspicions. That had meant they only ever, really, took money and food, but those two things and the freedom to go where he pleased was all any reasonable man could want for himself.
Hiram Mitchell put the next piece of cake in his mouth and told himself he was going to hold it there for thirty seconds before he swallowed. While he waited, he grabbed his canteen and pulled the cork. The cake didn’t need any water to go down nicely, but waiting on the hanging was making him thirsty. When the time was up, water and cake found a welcome home in his belly. That old woman surely could bake, he thought.
Hiram Mitchell wasn’t angry with Matthew. Not even that morning when he had woken to find that his partner had packed up and left in the night. Matthew had taken to drinking too much and wondering aloud whether they wouldn’t be better off finding steady work on a ranch somewhere. Hiram Mitchell had told him they’d talk about it when Matthew was sober, but they never did. And, at some point, it seemed like Matthew was never sober, really. Still, so long as Matthew never broke the rules, Hiram Mitchell had been content to have him along.
Without Matthew along, it had been harder to do some things and impossible to do others. But because he had self-control, Hiram Mitchell had gotten along just fine. He had worked when he needed to and refused to when he was flush. Eventually, his travels had brought him to this area. About three miles west of town there was a farm that had caught Hiram Mitchell’s eye. It had been that time when the harvest had been taken in and the farmers were taking their bounty to sell. A good time, because there were fewer men in the homes. At the farm that had caught Hiram Mitchell’s eye, there had been one woman who had looked to be all by herself. In a copse of trees where he wasn’t likely to be seen, Hiram Mitchell had dismounted and had set himself to watching the farm to make sure. By the time night had come, he hadn’t seen any sign of man or dog on the property and he had been satisfied.
When the lights in the house had been put out, Hiram Mitchell had sneaked to a window and had peeked in. When he hadn’t seen anyone unexpected, just the woman in her bed, he had gone to the front door. The door had been unlocked, and as he had gone in he had said a silent thanks for trusting country folk.
Hiram Mitchell had left that house two hours later with a sack of bread, roast chicken, and potatoes. The few coins he had found were in his pocket. As he had mounted his horse he had been satisfied that the rules were working. He had gone east with no plans to return. It wasn’t until he had been in Durango for about a week that he had heard any news, and, damn him, if it wasn’t a small world. The papers were saying that Matthew Swanson had been arrested for the murder of his wife. Matthew Swanson who had a farm that, out of all the farms, Hiram Mitchell had sneaked into because there hadn’t been a man around to interfere.
Hiram Mitchell had stayed on in Durango doing odd jobs and living in that boarding house in order to keep an eye on the proceedings. He hadn’t been sure, at first, that this was the Matthew he knew, but the newspapers had printed descriptions of the accused and then he had been convinced. The papers had put the story on the front page for weeks, repeating details about how Matthew had shown up at the jail, his shirt soaked in blood, and quite drunk. After the sheriff had had a look around the farm, he had come to the conclusion that Matthew had killed his wife in a drunken rage. The papers had liked to make a deal out of Matthew being new to the area and how other folks hadn’t known much about him. They had explained away his coming into town to report the crime as the faulty reasoning of a drunken man.
Matthew Swanson didn’t need to be drunk to have faulty reasoning, Hiram Mitchell knew. He figured he had a pretty good idea of what had happened. How Matthew had come home with his proceeds to show his wife. How he had thrown himself, in tears, on his wife’s corpse. How he probably had had a bottle hidden away where Hiram Mitchell hadn’t been able to find it, like old drunks do, and had tried to drown his grief. And how he had probably figured that, because his conscience was clean in this regard, he had nothing to worry about from the law.
It hadn’t been long before there was a trial and the jury had taken little time to find Matthew guilty. The prosecutor had told a lurid story about a depraved man whose real nature, despite outward appearance, had inevitably resulted in the death of a beloved local woman. Who could really know such a person? Well, Hiram Mitchell knew. And he knew even more than before that juries were not to be trusted. But they had done him a favor, really. Because they had Matthew, they weren’t looking for anyone else. And because they were going to hang him and wash their hands of it all, Hiram Mitchell could break his rule and return to the place where he had done a thing, since no one could be suspicious now.
Hiram Mitchell saw a group of men come out of the jail. He was too far away to see Matthew’s face properly, but his head was held high. Hiram Mitchell approved. The sheriff led the way to the scaffold. Deputies flanked Matthew and a minister stood behind him. Before the men could climb onto the scaffold, a mangy dog jumped up there and hopped around like he wanted to play. Some in the crowd laughed and pointed as the sheriff and one of the deputies chased the dog off the platform.
The deputies placed Matthew on the trapdoor. One of them stayed by him while the other walked over to the lever for the door. The sheriff held up a paper and began to talk. Hiram Mitchell was too far away to hear him properly, but figured the charges and punishment were being read out. And when that was done, he figured they’d offer Matthew a chance for some last words, which they did. While he was talking, Hiram Mitchell thought back to the things they had done together. He wondered if that minister had been any comfort to Matthew, who had sometimes talked like he believed that God was good, even after he had done a bad thing.
Hiram Mitchell didn’t know, himself. He had never been able to decide one way or the other. But then he had a thought. He pictured a daisy in his head and he plucked a petal from it. He decided this would do just fine. Hiram Mitchell plucked the next petal. “God is good.” He plucked again. “No, He ain’t.” He kept plucking and, since this daisy was in his head, he knew he had as many petals as were needed. He kept as steady a pace as he knew how. He didn’t want to cheat. There was an important question to be answered. Whichever petal was the last to be plucked wasn’t up to him, after all, he just needed to pluck it.
Matthew stopped talking and the deputy put the noose around his neck. Hiram Mitchell felt himself flush, but he forced himself to keep pace. A nervous smile came on his face. When the deputy pulled the lever, Hiram Mitchell twitched like it had been his neck in that noose, but he soon had himself under control. He could see that the rope hadn’t broken Matthew’s neck and the condemned man was jerking and kicking like a drowning man trying impossibly to find the surface. Hiram Mitchell plucked.
“God is good.”
“No, He ain’t”
And when Matthew’s boots had kicked their last and he was still except for the swing of the rope, Hiram Mitchell had his answer. He slapped the neck of his horse. “God is good”. And, of course, He was. He looked out for those He loved. That was why there were things in the world like vanilla cake, unlocked doors, and hangman’s nooses. And wasn’t Hiram Mitchell loved and looked out for? Wasn’t he a blessed part of His creation?
Hiram Mitchell turned his horse, there being nothing more to see now that Matthew was dead. He wanted to find a quiet place where he could laugh as long and loud as he cared to without anyone wanting to know why. He put the last of the vanilla cake in his mouth and put his spurs to the horse. With a heart lighter than he had ever known, Hiram Mitchell rode out into God’s good creation.
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.