Shot at the Gallows

Hamilton had read about this kind of shot in dozens of Beadle and Adams dime novels but never had he entertained the thought that one shot would actually finish the job the way it was intended. Not that there was a chance in hell this go around. His trigger finger was a sad quivering worm, and the sweat sliding between his palms and his rifle greased the metal into a slithering snake, such that a rock solid hold was never to happen in the salty heat of the simmering sun.

Hamilton wiped his hand on his pants and felt the sand crawl into the cracks in his skin. He decided to apply the sand like chalk the way his father had taught him. He removed his shirt, for a moment fearing that his pale skin would glare under the setting sun and, even from this distance, the marshals at the gallows would spot him and shoot him right between the eyes.

He swept his brow with his already soaking shirt and wiped his hands with it. He grasped his rifle again, wrapping the shirt round it and holding it as a barrier between his skin and the metal. Blinking sweat out of his right eye, Hamilton looked again down the sight of the rifle and sighed, beginning to slow his breathing the way his father had taught him. This was his father’s gun, after all, and if you’re going to do the things that Hamilton was about to do than the least you can do is treat the memory of your father with respect.

Hamilton’s eyes focused on the scene nearly 100 yards away. No matter how fast he could roll to his horse at the bottom of the hill, he would undoubtedly be arrested and questioned, would most likely meet the same fate as Arlen Ford. But Hamilton didn’t care. This was the type of situation that birthed legends, deadeye gunmen who, like Arlen was about to do, could evade the law and the justice of men because fate has drawn their path in the sand. Perhaps Arlen would save Hamilton, would bring him out of obscurity and small farming to the dirt roads between Santa Fe and North Dakota. Perhaps they would then rob trains, maybe three, and run way with treasures and purses and deep pockets of money and gold to survive them the rest of their lives, which for Hamilton would be another thirty years or longer.

Along the top of his rifle, Hamilton gazed at the clump of people, no larger than beetles from this distance. The crowd of insects restless in front of the gallows were townsfolk anxious for justice, though Hamilton disagreed that justice hung from the gallows of men. In his mind, justice would’ve been for this day never to have come, for Arlen to be roaming free across the open range carrying bundles of gold and providing dime novels to be read and told around campfires and dinner tables for years to come.

Hamilton watched the motions of the Hangman as he wrapped the black hood over Arlen’s face, and the noose around his neck, then stepped back. A priest off to the left opened a Bible, such was all that Hamilton needed to see to be sure this was the moment. He focused all his strength on the rope just above Arlen’s head, thin enough to break with one bullet. One pristine shot.

He licked is dry, aching lips, skin cracking in the swirling sand and the breeze which gusted across the hills, haunting him, reminding him that if there were ever a time to become a hero now was that time. He sighed again, ready now. He felt his quivering worm of a finger tense and turn to stone, and remembered his father’s words about criminals and justice, how justice was in God’s hands, how it was not for men to dole out justice but only to protect the laws of God. Hamilton was sure this moment would’ve been what his father was talking about, and what he meant when he said those words three years ago on Hamilton’s tenth birthday.

He squeezed the trigger, the rifle bucking in his arms, his shoulder bearing the brunt of the pressure like a seasoned shooter, steady and sure. He didn’t focus on the sight for a moment longer, choosing instead to roll to his side ten feet and hop into the saddle of his horse. The horse immediately kicked dirt into the air as if pulled and pushed along wildly by the winds which blew around them. Clouds of sand and dust kicked up from its’ hooves, Hamilton disappearing into the darkening skies to the east.

To the west, the hooded Arlen Ford nodded to the Hangman. “You hear the smack of that rifle?”  The Hangman nodded his head, then collapsed to the floor of the gallows, the bullet lodged between his eyes. “Some shot, whoever that was.”

The priest finished his prayer. He had paused only a moment as the crowd and marshals ducked from the sound of the gun. Like Hamilton’s father, the priest believed that God would do his worst to the thief and killer known as Arlen Ford, and would likely do the same to the Hangman’s killer. For the priest, it was at the will of God that man’s last breath come at the hands of the almighty, and in the case of Arlen Ford, justice was decided the moment he shot his first victim.

Arlen’s body twitched as his neck broke and hung for three hours, to be sure, at the priest’s insistence. The priest looked at the distant hills, squinting in the final moments of twilight. He thought he glimpsed the small shadow of a horse roaming wild, free, but decided it was only the wind.

Hamilton coughed up dirt and dust as his horse kicked and bucked around him, The dust storm growing in force as night fell around them. He tried to move his leg, but the broken bones would not allow a moment without pain unless he lay perfectly still. He thought of Arlen Ford’s adventures and how they would continue forever, and wished he were a part of them. Perhaps they would meet very soon, when the dust cleared, or even in the early dawn of tomorrow.

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