William Bates had a hold of the tail of his daddy’s coat. They were moving slowly down the street and Willy could only see trouser legs and skirts. It seemed the whole town was heading to the same place at the same time and nobody was paying attention to anyone as small as Willy. He dodged knees and parasols and picnic baskets, all swung as if no one could be hit. Once, a panting, fuzzy hound brushed by him and Willy reached out for the dog’s tail, but he remembered that he needed to stay with his daddy or he wouldn’t get the treat he had been promised if he was a good boy. So he held tight to his daddy’s coat and let the dog disappear among the petticoats and dusty shoes.
Willy was panting a little himself when his daddy came to a sudden stop. He reached down and took hold of his son. He tried to lift Willy onto his shoulder but the boy still had the coat tail in his hand. “Let go now, Willy. I’m gonna put you on my shoulder so you can see.” Willy let go and soon enough he was on his daddy’s left shoulder, above the pants and skirts to a world of hats and heads. Willy’s father was not especially tall, but the boy could see over the crowd, mostly, and now could see what they had come for.
His daddy had explained that there would be something called a scaffold and he had described what it would look like. Willy’s mama had objected to telling the boy anything about such terrible business. She had then repeated her objection to her son being taken to see it. But Willy’s daddy had told her that life was full of unpleasantness and this particular unpleasantness was a chance for their son to learn something about the law and its consequences. He was a citizen, after all, even young as he was. Her answer had been only to repeat that there was no way on God’s good earth that she would be going with them to watch such barbarity.
Willy wasn’t sure what his mama was on about. The scaffold looked just like his daddy had described it. It looked to him like you could fit most all the dogs he’d ever seen on there at once and it wouldn’t fall down or anything. So far in his life, Willy was pretty sure that his daddy was always right, so he didn’t know what the fuss was about. But, of course, his mama was right a good deal of the time, too, so Willy just kept his head down and tried to be a good boy.
Someone jostled them and Willy’s daddy had to lean over a little to keep his balance. Willy reached around his daddy’s head with his right arm and held on. His hand grabbed his daddy’s ear, but not too tight, because he remembered what had happened last time. When they were balanced again, Willy looked around at the people. He recognized just about everyone he could see. A couple other children he knew were also up on grown-ups’ shoulders. One was sucking on a piece of candy.
Willy knew his daddy had some rock candy in the pocket of his coat. He knew it because he had been in the store when his daddy had bought it. When his daddy had put it in his pocket, he had told Willy that he could have some after, if he was a good boy. Willy knew he was a good boy, but because his parents didn’t always know it, he had been extra good so far. He sat as still as he could and kept his balance so he wouldn’t have to squeeze his daddy’s ear too hard.
All the people were talking, it seemed. Even Willy’s daddy had struck up a conversation with another man standing just in front of them. There was so much talking he could hardly make out what was being said. Mostly it was just noise like frogs croaking around the pond in the evening. Willy smiled thinking about the people like they were frogs. He liked frogs. If everything went as he imagined it should, he was going to take the rock candy his daddy would give him for being a good boy and go out to the pond, where he would suck on rock candy while he caught frogs. Like his daddy would say sometimes, “There’s nothing in the world better than that.”
Willy was good at catching frogs and he was good at sucking on hard candy, but he had never done both at the same time. The way he figured it, if a person was good at two things and liked both those things, then doing them at the same time had to be a lot better than either one alone. His mama might fuss at him for putting rock candy in his mouth with hands that were holding frogs, but he’d just do his best to keep his back to the house. Mama was good and decent and she knew a lot, but what she didn’t know about frogs could fill that scaffold and have a mess left over besides.
From behind them, Willy could hear the voice of Widow Stanley. He turned his head to be sure, and there she was, talking to her daughter Widow Harper and another woman Willy wasn’t sure he knew. His daddy had a name for the widows, but his mama had forbidden Willy to ever use it or even think it, though she had smiled a little while she told him. “It’s true,” the Widow Stanley said, mostly seeming to talk to the unknown woman. “If he doesn’t die the first time they hang him then they have to haul him up and hang him again. And if that doesn’t kill him they’ve got to do it a third time. And if that doesn’t do for him then they have to let him go.”
“Let him go?” said the woman.
“”Of course. If he isn’t done in three tries then that’s proof that the Good Lord doesn’t want him yet. And no judge or jury can argue with the Good Lord about that, though the legislature might try.” The women nodded, their heads going up and down together. This was news to Willy. His daddy hadn’t told him much about the hanging except what the scaffold looked like and that a bad man who had done a bad thing was going to be punished on it, which seemed to Willy like a reasonable thing. After all, if he could be punished even though he was a good boy then why shouldn’t a bad man be punished?
The croaking of the crowd changed to a hum. People were pointing toward the jailhouse. Willy looked over to see a group of men coming out of the building. He recognized the sheriff and the young minister, but he didn’t know the man in shackles. The man looked very sad, but he kept his head up. Willy figured that that was just about the right expression for someone who was going to be punished in front of so many people. Willy didn’t think he had ever been punished in front of more than three or four people and that was bad enough.
His daddy patted Willy’s knee and pointed at the group of men. He didn’t say anything, though, which surprised Willy a little. When his daddy had told him about the scaffold and the bad man, he had told Willy he would let him know what was happening. But he was quiet now like most of the crowd. As the men approached the scaffold, though, the fuzzy hound ran out in front of them and up onto the platform. He bowed and bounded and looked like he wanted to play, which caused the crowd to laugh until some of the men had chased him off. And then the group was on the scaffold and they put the bad man under the knotted rope.
The sheriff took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. He cleared his throat and then he called the bad man by his name, “Matthew Swanson”, and told him and the crowd how he had been found guilty and what he was guilty of, which sounded very bad, indeed, to Willy. Then he told them all that the punishment was, “To be hanged by the neck until dead.” Some in the crowd shouted at Matthew Swanson then, saying all sorts of nasty things that Willy’s mama would never approve.
Then the sheriff asked if Matthew Swanson had any last words. He did. Willy didn’t really listen to him, because he was a bad man who had been found guilty and there wasn’t anything that a man like that could say that a good boy like Willy needed to hear. So Willy looked around hoping to spot the fuzzy hound and trying to be undeniably good so his daddy would give him that rock candy. He knew he was supposed to be learning about being a citizen, but he had plenty of time for that later. There were too many frogs to catch and too much candy to eat before then.
There was a loud noise from the scaffold and some in the crowd gasped. Willy turned back to look. His daddy was patting Willy’s knee and pointing. Part of Matthew Swanson had fallen through the floor of the scaffold. Willy could see his legs down there. The rest of him was struggling above. “His neck ain’t broke,” said someone.
“They done it wrong,” said someone else. Willy stared at Matthew Swanson hanging from the knotted rope. The bad man’s eyes were bulging and his face was red. The rope twisted and Willy could see the man’s hands manacled behind him. His legs kicked hard. They banged against the side of the hole in the scaffold. They kicked like frog’s legs did sometimes when Willy was holding one. They’d kick hard like they were trying to swim away from Willy’s hands. And sometimes they kicked so much that Willy would let them go because he just wanted to hold them, not fight them.
Matthew Swanson kicked all he could, which seemed like a lot to Willy. But then he gave up kicking and he wasn’t so much like a frog anymore. Or, anyway, not so much like any frog Willy wanted anything to do with. His mama had told Willy once how there were people who killed frogs so they could cook and eat their legs. Thinking about that now, looking at the hanged man, put a picture in Willy’s head and he didn’t want to think about frogs any more.
Willy watched as the bad man stopped moving except for the rope swaying him back and forth and twisting him around. “I thought for sure they’d have to haul him up and try again,” said the Widow Stanley. “But it looks like the Good Lord didn’t object.” Maybe the other ladies nodded, but Willy didn’t look around to see. He kept his eyes on Matthew Swanson. And when his daddy pressed something against Willy’s right hand, he let go of the ear and took the rock candy, proof that he had been a good boy.
Willy put the candy in his mouth and sucked on it absently while his daddy lifted him off his shoulder and back to the ground. Willy grabbed the tail of his daddy’s coat and they started off toward home. While he was walking past parasols and picnic baskets, Willy thought about his plans. He had been a good boy and maybe now he was a good citizen, too. But the candy didn’t taste like much of anything and it was hard to be good at sucking on it when it didn’t taste so good. And that was a shame, because now he wouldn’t have anything to do when he got home, since he knew he wasn’t going to be catching any frogs, either.
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.