I was there the day they hanged Bernie Jeffit. I hid in the afternoon shadows, nestled between the last two wood-planked buildings in a long stretch of similar structures that made up our town of Livingston. This was my first hanging. Before today, I remembered Bernie as a tough bully that screamed ‘notice me’ at every turn. Now, I only saw a lonely, scared kid, peering out between two wild eyes. His head jerked as he scanned his audience, probably with vain hopes that his gang would somehow rescue him from his fate. But, that would be an impossible feat today. Tried and convicted by the traveling judge left no room for hope from the angry mob gathered here today. No one cared too much what happened to a rustler.
I spread sweaty palms over my ears to block out Bernie’s last crushing scream. The door under his feet swung free and ricocheted against a bracing pole underneath the structure. His body plummeted. My eyes bulged and refused to blink as the heavy rope pulled tighter and tighter against his neck. Any lingering signs of courage in his expression suddenly changed to disbelief and horror. Surely, he was near to standing at the front door of his Maker — the final judge. Sputtering guttural sounds seeped through the thick air. Nerve shaking twitches sealed the deed. But, all that repulsion wasn’t nearly as bad as the moment it all stopped and he just hung there, limp and lifeless.
Cheers followed the eerie stillness. It deafened me. As if the act of seeing a grown boy die, even a bad boy sentenced for a real crime, could somehow be considered a great event, drawing crowds in like the town fair. Folks say I’m a tender hearted kid and I supposed it was true. I should have listened to my Pa and stayed home today. But, it’s too late now. I can’t erase the vivid colors, or stop the echoes that torture my ears, nor plug up the urge to vomit. The whole replay shows no mercy to my disobedient heart.
I heard my brother, Freddie, and his friends shouting and chanting foul things at the law. They created quite a spectacle, in plain sight of everyone. But, from what I could see, no one was listening. Both sides of the verdict, protesters and supporters, stood on the same dirt street, and for vastly different reasons watched the sentencing unfold. Caught up in the frenzy, Freddie no longer seemed worried that our father might catch him in town. But I was. I crouched against the wall wishing I could make myself invisible, all the while hating the coward that lurked in me.
Today’s events would surely stir into motion the already brewing storm. It swirled in the air, round and round, like a funnel-storm picking up momentum. Grown-ups did their best to protect the innocence of the young’uns. At least my folks did. They always said that settling the west, complete with all the wild adventures that held them captive here, balanced the never-ending problems they shouldered daily; that they were all big-people worries and not worth upsetting youngsters. But even a kid could feel the momentum of the coming outburst and the power it possessed to toss anyone caught in its path clear back to wherever they came from.
Sheriff Dylan yelled to the crowd. “Move along now. The show is over. Go about your business.”
I chose that chaotic moment to worm my way closer to the death scene. Weaving in and out of the crowd, I spied a piece of a log lying close by – a cut off the tree that hadn’t been used when building the gallows. Quick as a thief, I grabbed it and then retreated back into the shadows. My breathing was laboured, not from the quick jaunt into the middle of the ruckus, but from a nagging fear that lodged somewhere in my throat. Disgusted at myself, I kicked at the dry dirt and headed for the meeting place.
Freddie and the boys were chewing tobacco and talking when I neared the spot. Another regret. I wish I’d never stopped to listen. I wish I’d never heard the scheme and seen the hatred in their faces. But mostly, I wish I’d never been discovered listening. Jessie, one of the boys, noticed me first and come running. He dragged me to the center of their circle and pushed me toward Freddie.
“You best keep your nosy brother away from us.”
“He’s just a kid. I’m in charge of him today. Besides, we’re tight.” He looked my way.
“Blood brothers, right, C.J.?”
“Right, Freddie. I wanna go home now, but you can stay and visit with your friends if you want. I won’t tell Pa.”
“So, anything you might have overheard here won’t be repeated to anyone else?”
“You know it, Freddie. Not a word.” I convinced myself that no one would be interested in the few lines of conversation I’d heard anyway. It didn’t tell a whole story.
“Then off with you, boy. Straight home. And no lollygagging along the way.”
I raced all the way home, often wishing I’d waited for a ride on the back of Freddie’s horse. It was quite a stretch for little legs but I was known for being the best runner in these parts. It felt good to be famous for something, so I puffed my chest and ran harder, clutching my piece of history close to my heart. Why I even bothered to carry it home was beyond me. All I knew for certain was the driving instinct inside that would not allow me to fling it to the side of the road. I pondered where or how this chunk of wood would fit into the Jones destiny but all my figuring left me feeling stupid and more puzzled than ever. In the end, I eased my mind in the knowing that today’s hanging was important to Freddie. That alone was enough o warrant a place in the family’s chest of memories.