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Hanging day always drew a crowd to Fort Smith.
Sam Dark had often pondered—without finding answers—the macabre side of human nature that made people travel long miles to watch a man die. If it weren’t his job, he wouldn’t be here. But he was a federal deputy marshal, assigned to keep watch on the people till the trap was sprung, to be on the lookout for any rescue effort or other disturbance. If he had been inclined to gauge crowds with a showman’s eye, he would have said Barney Tankard was not a strong draw. Far larger crowds had gathered here on other occasions. Barney Tankard was just one man. The biggest crowds came to witness Judge Isaac Parker’s spectacular multiple hangings, when they could see several men drop into Eternity together. Barney Tankard was not even a notable criminal. He was simply a farmer’s son who had shot a friend in a drunken quarrel over a half bottle of contraband whiskey. Folks said it was the Indian half of him that made him unable to hold his liquor and the white half that made him pull the trigger. He wasn’t basically a bad man, just the wrong man to get drunk.
Sam Dark had been the officer dispatched across the Arkansas River into Indian Territory to fetch Barney for trial. Barney hadn’t been wolf enough to get away, for he had never gone afoul of the law before. Catching him had been easy. This was the hard part, to stand here now watching the grim preparations on Judge Parker’s big white-painted gallows.
Somebody was hawking lemonade at the edge of the milling crowd, catching his dollar wherever it might chance to fall. Dark angered, for it seemed to him a man ought to be allowed some dignity in which to die. Damn it, this wasn’t a horse race or a summer picnic. He heard a child shout boisterously and another answer. He glanced around without patience, wanting to send them on their way. Buttons like that … they ought to be in school instead of out here waiting to see a man choke to death at the end of a rope … but this was hard country and these were harsh times … violence so common it was expected like the ague … temptation at every fork in the road. Lots of people figured that to see a hanging was part of a boy’s proper education, an object lesson in what happens when one allows his feet to stray from the paths of righteousness and into the devious byways of iniquity. This was a thing to make a boy pause and tremble when tempted by an urge to steal a neighbor’s ear-corn or to sneak a ride on somebody’s mule, the first fateful steps on the well-marked road to the gallows.
Dark surveyed the crowd and found among them a lot of good people—farmers, businessmen, riverfolk—and wondered what the hell they were doing here. A scattering of Indians watched placidly, people come over from beyond Arkansas to see a brother pay for breaking white man’s law. If the crime had not been perpetrated against a white man Barney Tankard could have stood trial in tribal courts, for being half Cherokee qualified him as Indian. But it would have made no difference in the final outcome; even the tribal councils decreed death sentences for murder. An Indian convicted in tribal court might be given time to go home and straighten out his affairs, but the end was inevitable. It was a point of honor that upon the appointed day he would appear on his own volition before the council to meet his death like a man, in strength and in dignity. For Barney Tankard there was to be no dignity.
Dark saw a cluster of crib girls, gathered from down on the river, and a couple of them were weeping. He doubted they had ever seen Barney Tankard before. Perceiving little sympathy anywhere else, Dark was glad Barney received at least this much.
The lank, bearded hangman, George Maledon, guided the leg-ironed Barney Tankard onto the double-hinged trap door, and a hush fell over the crowd. Barney glanced up involuntarily at the rope that Maledon had earlier tested with sandbags to be sure it wouldn’t kink. In his hands Maledon held the little black bag that would go over Tankard’s head. He waited now for the end of the ritual, for the condemned man to speak his last words.
Dark had seen men pray in their final moments. He had heard others caution the onlookers to beware of mistakes that might lead them up these same fatal steps. He remembered a couple who had gone to Eternity cursing.
Given his chance, Barney Tankard stood in silence, a trembling young man still bewildered by a chain of events whose cause he could but dimly recall. He kept his feet only by great effort. His gaze searched the crowd until it found Sam Dark. Dark felt the despair in the dark Indian eyes and wanted to turn away but could not. Tankard summoned some inner strength to have his short say, and he looked straight at Dark as he said it. “What I done was wrong, that I know. But I’ve prayed, and I’m easy with the Lord. I didn’t get here by myself. Them that sold me the whiskey, them that chained me and brought me to this place—they’re as bad in their way as I am in mine. I wonder if they are easy with the Lord.”
Seeing Barney was through the stern Maledon fitted the noose and the black cap. Methodically he reached for the lever.
Dark jerked his head away and shut his eyes. He had watched the first time; he had never made that mistake again. He flinched at the slam of the heavy doors and the sharp gasp from the crowd packed around him.
God, he thought, what a wretched way for a man to die!
When he looked again it was not toward the gallows. He knew nothing had gone wrong there. George Maledon was a precision craftsman who took satisfaction in a job well done. Dark turned to the ugly red brick courthouse, toward the high windows of Judge Parker’s chambers. He could see the dim, portly figure of a man standing in the shadows, watching to see that the sentence was duly carried out as he had pronounced it in that austere courtroom. In a moment the figure disappeared.
Gone to pray now in solitude, Dark knew. But whose soul does he pray for? Barney’s? His own? Or maybe for mine and for the rest of us who’ve got a dirty job to do?
Dark was particular not to look toward the gallows again. Though he turned away he could still see in his mind the accusing black eyes of Barney Tankard. There wouldn’t be any sleep for Sam Dark tonight, not unless he drank himself to it.
The crib girls were walking away now, a couple of them weeping as if Barney were kin. Every man ought to have somebody weep for him, even if it’s just a girl from down on the river.
The crowd was breaking up, though many people still stared at the grim white gallows as if hypnotized by the image of Death. There wouldn’t be any trouble now; he could go. He pushed his way among the people, wanting away from here.
At the edge of the crowd he heard a youthful voice call: “Mister Dark! Could I talk to you a minute, Mister Dark?”
He didn’t look around. “Talk to me tomorrow.”
“I’d like to talk to you now.”
“Boy, can’t you see…” Dark turned half angrily, looking for whomever had spoken. He saw a man a little past twenty—fresh-eyed, smooth-faced but sun-browned, wearing a floppy farmer hat and a loose-fitting homespun shirt probably made for somebody else. Sharply Dark said, “I got a right smart on my mind right now, button. I don’t feel like talkin’ to nobody. Hunt me up another time.”
“I come a long ways.”
“You shouldn’t of. Right now I just want me a good stiff drink. By myself.”
The young man went silent. But as Dark proceeded away from the courthouse toward the gin mills on Garrison Avenue, he sensed the lad was following him. Dark turned abruptly. “Are you kin of Barney Tankard?”
“Kin of somebody else I’ve brought in for the judge?”
“Then what’s your grudge?”
“I got no grudge, sir.”
“If it ain’t a grudge, then I wish you’d leave me the hell alone!”
Dark resumed his walk, pushing on through the crowd. Acquaintances hailed him, but he passed them by. He fixed his gaze stonily on a certain saloon and tried to see nothing else. But his eye was caught by a heavy freight wagon standing in the street and a big man checking the trace chains. Dark stiffened at sight of him, and he rubbed a rough hand across his face.
The big man raised up. His mouth smiled but his eyes were hard. “Howdy, Sam Dark. Good hangin’.”
Dark’s fists knotted. “I don’t expect Barney Tankard enjoyed it much.”
“You don’t need to look at me thataway. I didn’t even know the boy.”
“But you got his money in your pocket, Harvey Oates. And I expect now you’re gettin’ ready to go back across into the Territory and peddle some more of the same bad whiskey to other Indian boys who got no tolerance for it.”
Harvey Oates kept his sham of a smile. “You want to look in my wagon? You’ve done it before and you’ve never yet found a drop of whiskey.”
“Someday I will. I’ll drag you to the judge, Harvey.”
“You’ll never find what ain’t there. I’m just an honest freighter, that’s all. I take the necessities of life to the poor folks out yonder in the wilderness that can’t come and fetch it for theirselves.” He dropped the smile. “You’re a sad case, Sam Dark. You’ve got to takin’ your job too personal, and that’s a dangerous thing. You’re just supposed to bring them in; you’re not supposed to worry about them.”
“Most of them I don’t worry about, Harvey. And when I bring you in I’ll get a good night’s sleep.”
Dark turned away from Harvey Oates and elbowed through the swinging door of the saloon. The moustachioed bartender looked at him questioningly. Dark said, “I’m off duty, John.”
“You wouldn’t be drinkin’ if you wasn’t, Sam. You done your duty. I heard them doors drop. First drink’s on me; I reckon you got it comin’.”
Sam Dark had no dependence upon whiskey. He could go without it for weeks at a time and never miss it. Over in the Territory it was forbidden. But he respected whiskey’s preventive and curative powers when used at the proper time and place. This was the time. He downed the glass, coughed, then slammed a coin on the bar. “So you don’t lose money on me, John. Fill ’er again.” He took the glass, careful not to spill anything, and carried it to a small table to nurse it with time and care.
He heard the bartender ask somebody, “What’s for you, young fellow?” The reply was in the same voice he had heard at the edge of the crowd. “Nothin’, thanks. Mind if I just set myself down here to wait?”
Dark scowled and flung a question halfway across the room. “What you waitin’ for, button?”
“For you, Mister Dark. For you to get in the notion to talk to me.”
That’ll be a while, Dark thought to himself, looking away but not putting the thought into words. He sipped the whiskey, letting it burn his tongue, his throat, wishing it could also burn his brain and erase that image of those black eyes accusing him from the gallows. Times like this he wished he was still following a plow, his eyes looking past the brown rump of a stout Missouri mule. Times there was no price they could pay a man on a job like this that would be half enough. They paid little enough as it was.
He took a long time with the glass of whiskey, and when it was gone he filled it again. The tension had dulled a little. The black eyes that stared at him were blurred some and didn’t cut quite so deep.
The farm boy still sat at a table across the room, patiently waiting. Why don’t he get tired and leave? Dark asked himself irritably. But something sensed rather than seen told him the boy would wait there as long as Dark did.
Dark waved him over. “All right, button, you make as much noise sittin’ there quiet as you’d make hollerin’ in my ear. Come on and get it said.”
The boy pulled out a chair but didn’t sit down until Dark motioned for him to. “You don’t know me, do you, Mister Dark?”
“Am I supposed to?”
“You was in kind of a fever at the time, but I thought you might remember.”
“What time was that?”
“Time you rode up to our cabin bleedin’ where somebody had put a bullet through your arm. It had been a right long while, and you was sufferin’. Small wonder you don’t remember.”
Dark tried to. He reached through the haze of time and through the foggy memories of more than one wound received in the service of the United States District Court. “Would your name be Moffitt, boy?”
The young farmer nodded, pleased. “Yes, sir. Justin Moffitt.”
Dark frowned, trying to bring the mental picture into focus. Young Moffitt was right; Dark had been fevered at the time and the whole thing was more like a dream than an actual experience. “Two years back…”
“Your old daddy helped me into his house. You was a big gangly button but you helped too. Your ma, she cleaned up the wound and wrapped it and fed me some hot grits and pork.”
The young man kept nodding. “Yes, sir, that’s how it was. Pa tried to get you to stay a couple days and rest, but you rode out, still feverin’, Pa followed after to be sure you made the settlement. We never did hear if you caught your man.”
“Not that one. He got away into the Territory and disappeared. They was good to me, your folks. How is your daddy, and your ma?”
“Pa’s dead, sir. Feller come by one day last winter and started to steal our mare. On the run for the Territory, I guess. Pa tried to stop him. It wasn’t no match.” Moffitt looked down.
“Sorry about your daddy. He was a Christian. How’s your ma?”
“Still pinin’ some after Pa, but she’s otherwise all right.”
Dark lifted his glass as if in a silent toast. He took another drink. “You said you come to talk to me. What about?”
“I’m needin’ employment, Mister Dark. I want you to help me get on as a deputy marshal.”
Dark’s mouth dropped open. “What the hell for? You-all got a farm. Why would you want to take on a job like this?”
“Farm’s small. Ma’s got my brothers to help her. I need a job.”
“Then get one choppin’ cotton or sweepin’ saloons or workin’ the roads. This ain’t no life for a boy off of the farm.”
“I judge that you come off of the farm once.”
Dark flinched. “Button, you’re not old enough to know what you want.”
“I got old enough the day we buried my pa. And I’m not a button. I’m twenty-two.”
“When you’re on the downhill side of forty like I am, twenty-two looks like a thumb-suckin’ age. I bet you got some wild notion that this job’ll help you find the man that killed your pa.”
“Not likely. Chances are by now he’s gone plumb to Texas, or even on to California. But there’s plenty others left, just as bad as him. I want to help fix it so other boys won’t have to bury their pa the way I done mine.”
“A dream, son, that’s what it is. And believe me, it’d turn into a nightmare if you stayed with it long enough. What makes you think I’d even consider helpin’ you get a job like mine?”
“Maybe you forgot. Before you left our place you said if ever there come a time any of us needed your help all we had to do was ask you. So here I am, Mister Dark, and I’m askin’.”
“Best help I could give would be to send you packin’ back to where you come from, and that’s what I’m doin’.”
“You promised you’d help.”
“I am helpin’, more than you know.” Dark turned away from him, trying to dismiss him by showing his back. He sensed that the farmer stayed awhile, disappointed. Dark made up his mind to outwait Justin Moffitt. And presently the young man pushed back his chair. Dark heard the slow tread of Moffitt’s feet as he retreated out the door.
“Damned buttons,” Dark said finally to the bartender, “they never know when they’re well off.”
The bartender nodded and refilled Dark’s glass. “Pity they ever have to learn. Pity they can’t stay young and happy and dumb.”
“Some do, till it’s too late. Some like Barney Tankard…”
* * *
The afternoon wore away dismally. Some of the hanging crowd had come in for drinks, downed a few and long since departed. It was dusk when finally Sam decided he’d get up from here and go find something for supper. The crowd hadn’t bothered him, though he had sensed that a few were talking about him, pointing him out as a Parker bloodhound who rode the dim trails of the Indian Territory, relentlessly seeking out candidates for Parker’s judgment and Maledon’s carefully oiled ropes. There was respect in their voices, even a touch of fear. But rarely did Dark find liking. That was a thing a man gave up when he took on the job.
He stepped out the door and paused, surprised to find it was so late. His belly was warm from the whiskey and the coiled tension had left him. He hadn’t realized how time had slipped away. He turned to walk toward the shack that he used for sleeping and eating when he wasn’t out on business for the court. It had been years since he had had a home.
Dark felt the hard pressure of blunt, cold steel against his neck. A voice fell on his ear, quiet and stern. “Just you take it slow and natural, Mister Dark. Don’t act like there’s nothin’ wrong or I’ll pull this trigger. We’re takin’ us a little walk down by the river.”
Dark’s pistol was in his waistband, beneath his coat. It had as well have been in the shack, for if he tried to draw it he would be too dead to pull the trigger. “Don’t you get nervous with that weapon,” he said. “Just tell me whichaway you want me to go.”
The man moved the pistol down to Dark’s ribs, and Dark glanced around enough to see him. In the bad light he thought sure he was Barney Tankard. His stomach went cold. Damned whiskey, he thought, didn’t know I’d drunk so much. The man had Indian features, like Barney’s, and a steady hand on that pistol. “Keep lookin’ straight ahead, Mister Dark. You’ll see me soon enough.”
Dark walked with him, keeping an outward calm, which wasn’t difficult. He realized he ought to be more excited than he was, and he knew the whiskey had dulled him. That was a thing he would have to take into account—that his reflexes were slowed. Anything he did he’d have to be damned fast about.
Presently they reached the river and walked beneath a canopy of tall trees into a patch of heavy shadow. There Dark made out a small spring wagon with a pine box in it. He saw a gaunt old man—farmer, by the look of him—and a heavyset Indian woman. A young girl stood by the wagon and she looked Indian, too—half Indian, anyway. The old farmer was white, but Dark knew those features. He had seen them in the face of Barney Tankard. He glanced again at the young man who had brought him here. No, it wasn’t the whiskey; the man had Barney’s look. These people would be Barney’s family; his father and mother, his sister, his brother.
Dark was sober now. That cold feeling lay heavy in his stomach. “Mister Tankard?” he asked, knowing.
The farmer nodded. “Elijah Tankard. The boy with the gun, that’s my son Matthew. The girl is Naomi. And this lady is Barney’s mother, Dawn. Cherokee. Good people, the Cherokees.”
Dark nodded. He’d known a lot of the Cherokees. “Yes, sir, good people. Mister Tankard, don’t you think you ought to be takin’ Barney home?”
“In God’s due time we’ll take him home.” The old man’s voice was deep and sad. “But we got a family debt that has got to be paid. Always taught my boys … a good man pays his debts.”
“It’ll be a mistake. You’ll come to grief.”
“Grief? Mister, we already come to grief. Just you look into the face of that boy’s mother. She’s been singin’ a death song. Don’t you think we know all there is to know about grief? He was a good boy, our Barney. He didn’t go to do nobody any harm.”
“He killed a man.”
“Wasn’t him that done it; it was that rotgut whiskey some of your Fort Smith peddlers sold him. It’s them peddlers you ought to be hangin’, sellin’ that poison to good young Indian boys.”
“He didn’t have to buy it, Mister Tankard. He didn’t have to drink it.”
“A boy like that, he don’t know. He don’t understand the consequences. You forbid a thing and you make it look good to him. If Parker wants to clean up the Territory let him hang the whiskey peddlers that bring the ruin on these people.”
“The judge does the best he can. He’s sent many a peddler up the river.”
“And let as many others get away. He can’t hang a man for sellin’ whiskey. Leastways he don’t. And seems like if he can’t hang a man he ain’t very interested. That rope has gotten to be some kind of a religion with him. He gets drunk on it the way other men get drunk on whiskey.”
Dark knew this was an unfair indictment; he also knew he wasn’t in a position to argue about it. Far and wide, Isaac Parker was known now as “the hanging judge.” He hanged them wholesale sometimes, by twos and threes and even by half dozens. Yet for every man he hanged, Judge Parker sentenced fifty to prison. It was human nature for people to forget about the fifty and remember only the one, and to call Parker a fanatic. “You had me brought out here at the point of a gun, Mister Tankard. That’s a prison offense. But I’ll forget it if you’ll just take that poor boy home and not leave him layin’ there on that wagon. He’s due some respect.”
The girl spoke. At another time and under other circumstances Dark might have looked at her as an individual, might have noticed whether she was pretty or not, whether her voice had a pleasant ring or an ugly one. But his only thought now was that she was an Indian woman, and that Indian men were known, among the wild tribes west, to turn their captives over to the women because the women could be the cruelest ones.
She said bitterly: “Don’t you talk about respect for Barney. You brought him here tremblin’ for that pious old hypocrite to hang. Barney done just one wrong thing in his life, and that wasn’t really his fault. He killed one man. How many have you killed, fetchin’ them in here like beeves to slaughter?”
Dark looked at the dangerous face of Barney Tankard’s brother. He could tell this line of talk was bringing him close to whatever it was they had planned for him. To the father he said, “You better think, Mister Tankard. You already lost one boy. Kill me and there’ll be a dozen deputy marshals out lookin’ for you. You don’t want to stand in front of Judge Parker. You sure don’t want this other boy of yours to either. It’d be a pitiful waste.”
The old farmer squared his gaunt shoulders. “We wasn’t figurin’ on killin’ you, Sam Dark. But we do intend to fix it so you don’t forget the Tankards. To the last day you live you’ll remember us.”
Dark saw the movement of Matthew Tankard’s hand and thrust himself away, trying to escape the clubbing barrel of that six-gun. It struck him a glancing blow that sent his hat spinning and dropped Sam Dark to his knees. A fist—he didn’t see whose—slammed into his face and sent wild colors spinning in his brain. The back of his head struck earth.
Fighting to find his balance and push to his feet, he expected another blow. It didn’t come. A young voice spoke taut and steely, “Step away from him. I’ll shoot whoever makes the next move at him!”
Dark knew the voice. “Don’t kill anybody, boy. Let them be.”
“Looky what they done to you, Mister Dark.”
“Let them be.” Dark struggled to his feet, breathing hard. He tasted blood and ran his hand across his mouth, through his moustache. “They done it for cause. Leastways they thought they had cause. Don’t shoot anybody, boy. One dead man today is enough.”
Justin Moffitt stared hard at the Tankards, not comprehending until his gaze touched the pine box. Realization came into his eyes. “You-all would be Tankards, wouldn’t you? From across the river.”
The old farmer and his son stood off balance in mute frustration. The girl finally said, “We’re Tankards.”
For a moment Moffitt appeared to soften, but he looked again at Sam Dark and his mouth went hard. “Then you better be crossin’ over. It’s been a sad day. Let’s don’t make it no sadder.”
“Boy,” said the farmer, “you one of them marshals?”
Moffitt shook his head. The old man said, “Then you butted in where you didn’t have no call. There’s times when a man ought to just keep walkin’ and not see nothin’.”
“I got good eyes, Mister Tankard. Sorry about your boy. But Sam Dark here, he just done his job.”
The men stared at each other a long time until the older woman said something in a low voice. When she got no response the girl said, “Come on, Papa. We better take Barney home.”
Sam Dark still swayed. “Mister Tankard, I meant what I told you—I’m sorry. And I pledge you one thing: I’ll do all I can about them whiskey peddlers. They helped your boy fire that gun. I may be callin’ on you for help.”
Matthew Tankard took a step forward. “You ever show your face at our farm and I’m liable to kill you, Dark!”
The father firmly placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Ease up, Matthew, you don’t mean that. You growed up Christian.” To Sam Dark he said, “Right now, tonight, I feel like Matthew does. Maybe in time I’ll learn to feel different. If there comes a day when you need help agin them peddlers, and you feel like takin’ a chance, you might come by. Maybe we’ll shoot you and maybe we won’t. Right now I wouldn’t make you no promises.”
The Indian woman sat on the wagon seat, her head down in silent grief. The girl climbed up beside her, and the old man followed the girl. His eyes hating, Matthew Tankard climbed into the wagonbed beside the coffin. Dark and Moffitt watched them until the night covered them up and only the creak of the wagon wheels indicated the way they had gone. Dark turned to the young man, who still held a pistol in his hand, his arm hanging straight. “You got that thing cocked? You’ll shoot yourself in the foot.”
His tone was one of mild reproach and Moffitt flared momentarily, having expected gratitude. “I know how to handle a gun.”
“If they’d called your bluff what would you have done?”
“I wasn’t bluffin’.”
Dark decided he wasn’t. This young man was serious enough to have shot somebody. “Well, then, I reckon you got me at a disadvantage. You got me owin’ you. That’s somethin’ I don’t like to do, is owe somebody.”
“You owe me twice,” Moffitt pointed out evenly. “Once for tonight, and once for the favor my pa and ma done you.”
“And I reckon you’ll dog my steps till I pay you?”
“That’s exactly what I’ll do.”
“What’ll it take for me to get rid of you?”
“Get me a job as a deputy like I asked you to.”
“So people can hate you the way that family hates me? So they’ll do to you what these folks almost done to me tonight?”
“Doin’ the right thing ain’t always popular. But it’s always right.”
Dark frowned. “First you got to always be sure what is right. Half the time nowadays I can’t make up my mind.” He shrugged finally. “I can’t promise you a job, but I do promise you we’ll talk about it. Where you stayin’ at?”
“Noplace. Anyplace. I got a blanket on my saddle and a warbag with a little grub in it. I just sleep where night catches me.”
“Well tonight it’s caught you in Fort Smith. I got me a shack down here a ways. Only one bed and that’s mine. But you can spread your blanket on the floor if you’re a mind to.”
“I’d be tickled, Mister Dark.”
Dark turned and started to walk. In a minute he stopped. “I never did tell you thanks. I reckon I ought to.” He sounded almost grudging.
“Get me a job, and that’ll be thanks enough.”
“Maybe. And then again maybe the day’ll come that you’ll wish you’d passed on by and let the Tankards do what they had in mind.”
copyright © 1969, 1997 by Elmer Stephen Kelton Estate
copyright © 1971, 1996 by Elmer Stephen Kelton Estate