Western Short Story - The Hangman

The Hangman

‘It’s time.”

Jake Smithers glared at me from his bunk, and remained seated.

“If I have to, I’ll get Jonas and Billy and we’ll carry you out.”

I paused. “Don’t let them see you scared Jake. Walk out there on your own. It’s going to happen no matter what you do, so you might as well make the best of it.”

“I ain’t scared.”

He was lying. Beads of sweat covered his forehead and there was dew on his upper lip. He was scared, sure enough, but who wouldn’t be?


Two months ago, Dave Johnson had come bursting in my office, his face ashen and a look of horror on his face. He had gone out to the Wheelers to buy some cheese and found them both dead, their throats cut. Molly Wheeler, their daughter, was nowhere to be found.

It took two days and circling vultures to find Molly. She was on the west bank of Dead Man Wash and it was an ugly scene. She was half naked and she had died of stab wounds to her chest. There was blood and skin under her nails. She was fifteen.

“Sheriff! Come look at this!” Billy Burdette, one of my two deputies had followed a faint trail where the long grass was still slightly bent and had found something. It proved to be a long, bone-handled knife with traces of blood and dirt on the blade. Someone had tried to clean it by plunging it into the ground. It must have fallen out as the murderer hurried away.

“Recognize it?” Jonas Philbin, my other deputy had ridden down from the slope overlooking the creek to join us.

“Maybe. It looks like something that blacksmith John Turnbull, over at Cordes might have made.”


The small town of Cordes was a stop for the California and Arizona Stage Line, where John Turnbull's smithy shop flourished with the ranching, mining, and stagecoach trade. I dismounted and watched for a moment as the hammer rose and fell, again and again in the shaping and forging of a shoe.

He paused in his labor and glanced over at me. I showed him the knife and asked if he had made it. He had. Turnbull glanced at the knife and nodded. “Yup. Made that for Devin Colburn, that card sharp who deals at the Bucket of Blood in Prescott.”


I found Devin Colburn at the Palace on Whiskey Row, where I handed him the knife and asked what he knew about it. Colburn turned the knife over in his hands. “Who’s asking?’’ He peered up at me through shaggy brows. He was seated at a table playing solitaire at ten o’clock in the morning, a cup of coffee steaming in front of him.

“I’m Tim Grace, Yavapai county sheriff.”

“Well sir, I lost this knife high carding with a man two months ago. He put up a gold watch.” He glanced up at me. “I think he cheated me.”

I chuckled. “That must have been some trick! I heard you can cut an ace anytime you want.”

“Not when the other man has a gun pointed at me.” Colburn smiled. He may have been a card slick, but he had a sense of humor.

“Did the winner have a name?”

“He called himself Jake Smithers. Older man, maybe six foot tall, but thin as a bed sheet. What’s he wanted for?”

“Know where I can find him?”

“Haven’t seen him around directly. I hear he has himself a cabin up by Crown King. Does some panning up there when he needs a stake.”


Jonas positioned himself behind the cabin with his revolving shotgun while Billy found a spot in the rocks where he could cover the front door and south side. I was also in front and just down the path from the door. We had been there since daybreak, and I was considering going in when I heard footsteps coming up the path and a man came into view. He had already seen me so I decided to play a part.

“Howdy.”

“Who the hell are you and what do you want up here?” He was a tall, thin man, and there were long, healing scratches on his cheek and throat. He glanced around nervously, but Billy and Jonas were both out of sight.

“I bought me a claim on the creek down yonder, and then I spotted this here cabin. I’m wondering if the owner might be interested in selling?”

“I’m the owner, and anything is for sale if the price is right.”

I stuck out my hand. “Cal Peters is the name.”

He took my hand reluctantly. “Name’s Smithers.”

I waved him on “After you sir.”

He stepped in front of me and I palmed my revolver, earing back the hammer and pressing the cold muzzle into the back of his neck. He stiffened and halted.

“I’m Sheriff Tim Grace and you, Mister Smithers, are under arrest for the murders of Joseph and Christine Wheeler and their daughter Molly. Put your hands in the air.”

“Never heard of ‘em.”


Jonas finished putting the irons on his ankles and wrists and left to fetch the wagon. Billy appeared at the cabin door where he had been looking for evidence and motioned to me. I chained Smithers to a pine and walked over.

“Would you look at this sheriff? I found this on a shelf next to his bunk. Good Lord!” Billy looked sick.

It was a tintype likeness of Molly Wheeler.


The trial lasted one day. Mrs. Tyler had gone to the Wheelers to buy a round of cheese on the day of the murders and she testified that Jake Smithers was the man who opened the gate for her and helped load the cheese into her buckboard. She broke down in tears because, she said, other than Smithers, she was the last person to see the Wheelers alive. It was devastating testimony.

But the clincher was Billy Burdette. When he testified that he had found Molly’s picture next to Smithers' bunk, the jury gasped in horror, and Smithers' fate was sealed.


“Turn around. Put your hands behind you and between the bars.” He complied grudgingly and I clamped on the irons. At my nod, Billy opened the cell and Jonas put on the leg irons and a wide belt around his waist to which we fastened the irons around his wrists.

“Keep your head up high Jake and keep moving.”

Jonas took one arm and Billy the other. I opened the door and stepped out on the boardwalk, motioning people to stand back. The Wheelers were well loved, and that alone was enough to stir up anger, but the brutal killing of Molly made Smithers the most hated man in the territory.

“You folks stand back, and let justice be done in a lawful matter. This man is about to pay his debt, so don’t interfere. This is Jake Smithers’ day to die, not yours”

There was some angry mumbling, but the crowd drew back and gave us room. I signaled to my deputies and they brought the prisoner out.

I let Billy and Jonas pass with Smithers and followed them, keeping an eye on the crowd. There were some muttered words, but no one seemed willing to do more. They parted and let us walk to the gallows in peace.

Just before we reached the steps, Smithers’ knees buckled slightly, but no one seemed to notice. We mounted the steps one by one and reached the platform. Preacher Thomas was there waiting for us, but the hangman was nowhere in sight.

While Jonas pulled the leather belts tight around Smithers’ elbows and ankles, and the preacher began to intone Scripture, Billy went to find the missing hangman. When Jonas was done, I moved Smithers over the trapdoor, pulling the black hood out of my belt and placing it over his head. Then I fitted the noose around his neck and tightened it, placing the knot under his left ear. I put my mouth close to his ear and spoke quietly.

“Buck up Jake. You’re doing fine. You won’t feel a thing and then you’ll finally be at peace.”

I stepped back and waited for Preacher Thomas to finish.

Billy came up the stairs with a perplexed look on his face. He walked over and spoke in a low tone, “The hangman is over at Doc’s. They think he may have had a heart attack or something. He’s alert and all, but he says he ain’t up to it. He’s says you’ll have to do it.”

I looked around at the crowd and swallowed hard. I was a lawman, not a hangman, but I couldn’t put anyone through this twice, not even a man like Jake Smithers. Preacher Thomas was wrapping up, so I walked over to the trap lever. The crowd had been watching all this and knew something was wrong, so they gasped when I took the hangman’s position.

Preacher Thomas said his Amen and backed up. It was my turn.

“Jacob Smithers, you have been tried by a jury of your peers and found guilty of the capital crime of murder and sentenced to be hung by the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul.”

And just like that I pulled the lever. There was a startled whimper of terror from the black hood as the floor fell away and his sudden downward plunge began. Then his body abruptly hit the end of the rope with an audible snap.

I walked over to the trap and looked down, my hand automatically reaching for the taut rope, which proved to be a bad mistake. His body was in spasms, quivering and trembling in the throes of death and all of it was transmitted up the rope, through my hand, and into my consciousness forever. I quickly released my grip and just for a moment, I thought I would be sick right up there in front of everyone.


The crowd began to drift away, and I went beneath the gallows with my deputies to remove the body. As I did, my Aunt Betty suddenly appeared and made a request that stunned me.

“I want to see that man’s face up close Tim. It’s important. I think I know him.”

“He’ll be at the undertakers and cleaned up tomorrow. You can see him then. He’s not fit to view right now.”

“No. I must see him now before he’s all powdered up. It’s important Tim. You know I wouldn't ask if it wasn’t."

My spinster Aunt Betty had raised me. My mother had died bearing me, and my father had been killed earlier. I shrugged my shoulders and removed the hood.

His face was mottled and the skin of his throat had been ripped open by the rope, but all in all, he didn’t look that bad. Aunt Betty peered at him for a long moment and slowly nodded her head.

She straightened up. “I’ve seen what I wanted. You can take him now.”


I didn’t say anything until after we finished dinner that night. Even then I waited. Finally, Aunt Betty placed a cup of coffee in front of me and drew up a chair with her evening cup of tea.

“I didn’t involve myself in the Wheeler murders Tim, because there was little I could do, so I stayed back and out of the way. When you arrested Jake Smithers, the name meant nothing to me. I stayed out of the trial and I was satisfied with the verdict. But I’ve always felt it’s a citizen’s duty to witness a public hanging, ugly as they are, because it is the culmination of justice for our neighbors.”

She took a sip of tea.

“When I saw that man for the first time this morning, I was shocked. I thought I recognized him just before you put on the hood and then I had to know. He was someone I knew very well at one time in my life, Tim. His real name was John Benton.”

She stirred her tea and then looked up at me.

“He was my husband.”

I was stunned. I had always thought my aunt was a spinster because no husband had ever been mentioned. After a moment, she went on.

“I was only married for a few months Tim. Then one day, I learned that my husband was an evil man. In fact he was a monster. You see, I found out he had molested my sixteen year old sister.”

She raised her eyes to me.

“He impregnated your mother Tim. Your father wasn't killed years ago. That was a lie meant to protect you. John Benton was your father.”



Author's note: All comments on my work are welcome, whether you are a member or not!

Two volumes of my short stories are now available, here and here.





More by this Author


Comments 78 comments

Sarah Masson profile image

Sarah Masson 5 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

Wow!!! This is great! i really enjoyed this, great story and awesome twist, wasnt expecting that :)


Old Poolman profile image

Old Poolman 5 years ago from Rural Arizona

Wow, talk about a surprise twist at the end. I sure didn't see that one coming. As usual, a great story.


Rhonda Waits profile image

Rhonda Waits 5 years ago from The Emerald Coast

A great story a great read. I like surprise endings. Great job, well done.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Rhonda!


resspenser profile image

resspenser 5 years ago from South Carolina

Enjoyed it pardner. Good story.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you!


50 Caliber profile image

50 Caliber 5 years ago from Arizona

Will, nice twist, didn't see it coming at all, voted all up. 50


aguasilver profile image

aguasilver 5 years ago from Malaga, Spain

Masterful writing and I also never saw the ending, you are one of the few writers here I will always read!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Dusty!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks aguasilver!


Ginn Navarre profile image

Ginn Navarre 5 years ago

Thanks Will, another great---ending.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Ginn!


Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas

WillStarr...you evil rascal of a western writer. You sure twisted the old writer's knife in this boy on this tale. Once the sheriff took the lever I looked in every direction for something to happen to maybe stop an inoccent man from being hung...turns outs that it wasn't that way at all...it was worse! Good write...up and awesome on this one! WB


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

LOL, Wayne! Thank you.


Rosie2010 profile image

Rosie2010 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Hiya Will, oh my gawd, this is really awesome. Such a twist of fate at the end. I thought when Aunt Betty showed up and recognized the man, she was going to say he had raped her and she was your mother and the bad guy was your father.. I was close.. but no cigar. This is another awesome story from one awesome writer. Just awesome.

Have a nice day,

Rosie


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Wow!

Thanks Rosie!


breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 5 years ago

I wasn't expecting the twist at the end. Well done!


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 5 years ago from South Africa

What a shock of a surprise at the end!

I love your style, WillStarr. 100% according to the rules of a short-story. With only the essential jewels like – “... as thin as a bed sheet.” I voted this UP and UP with applause.

I have to tell you: That photo shocked me – I thought the platform was movable and the guy is going to fall right into a grave dug especially for him, and I thought what if he is not dead when he hit bottom.

My sincere condolences to Tim Grace! Poor man needs a lot of emotional support now :)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Martie.

Every family has its secrets.


suziecat7 profile image

suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

Wow - this one is almost tied with "The Bonnet" in my eyes. Good stuff.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Suzie!

Your approval is always treasured.


chspublish profile image

chspublish 5 years ago from Ireland

OMG! That was some ending. I didn't see that coming. Good stuff Will.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you CHS.

There's something awesome in getting nice comments about your work all the way from Ireland!


tomsum profile image

tomsum 5 years ago from Australia

Weeehaaa!!

Cool little story. Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed it :)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Tom!


ralwus 5 years ago

Dam what a finish. O Henry style. Loved it Will.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Charlie!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

Your ending was a shock. I don't know how one would live with that knowledge.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Oh, what a tangled web we weave...


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Will Another neat and interesting story. You really do have a flair for this and there should be more writers like you on hubpages. My dad used to say 'I'll ring your neck', you little so and so." But i wouldn't want to hang him for it, now would I?


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi attemptedhumour,

I can't compete with poets like you and excellent article writers like Suziecat, so I just do what I do best!

Thank you for reading me.


Deerwhisperer profile image

Deerwhisperer 5 years ago from Bradenton, Florida

Just what I expected. Very melodromatic,kept me reading all the way through, and I don't do that for everyone!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you for commenting.


Earl 5 years ago

Will,

I was glued to the story. You are a natural...very impressed!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Earl!


b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 5 years ago

Very good! Your story makes the reader feel like they are part of the action of your characters. I'm glad I stopped by. I look forward to becoming a follower of yours.... And a big thank you for following me as well.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you!


stars439 profile image

stars439 5 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

Fantastic story. Great photos. God Bless You.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you stars!

Now I want to go see what wonders you bring!


epigramman profile image

epigramman 5 years ago

...well there are four really great 'western story' writers out there - Zane Grey, Louis L'amour, Wayne Brown, and Will Starr! What fine company indeed!

And please give my best wishes to your lovely wife!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Wow! High praise indeed!

Thank you epigramman, and yes, I will pass it along.


izettl profile image

izettl 5 years ago from The Great Northwest

I love a story with a twist. Themanwithnopants says you're great and you truly are. I'll be reading more hubs by you. You're a wonderful story teller. Great job and happy to be a fan!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks izettl and welcome to Will World! :-)


Ghost32 5 years ago

Okay, Will, you finally got me--with a twist I didn't see coming until almost to the punch line. (Of COURSE I was looking for it. Thought at first Jake Smithers might BE the hangman, being forced to do his duty, etc.)

As for Tim Grace hanging his own old man, why not? There was a time my own father overheard me tell my sis that if Dad laid a hand on MY horse, I'd shoot him...and I meant it. Then at that moment, I saw Dad in the distance and KNEW he'd heard me.

Uh-oh.

Minutes later, he braced me as I was coming out of the tack room on my early morning chore rounds. I expected the worst, but all he said--clearly crushed, the man was, though he could have crushed ME in nothing flat at that time (I was 16):

"What did I ever do to you?"

I kept my mouth shut--wisely--but the thought that flashed instantly through my mind was,

"You want a f***ing LIST?!"

I've mellowed some since then.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Ghost!

Father/son relationships can be difficult in the teen years because teenage boys are never wrong. :-)

I was scared of my dad and my sons tell me they were scared of me, which was a real shock and news to me.


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Well told story. Clearly and precisely told. Art of good short story telling. Well done.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you for your kind words Twilight Lawns!


ltfawkes profile image

ltfawkes 5 years ago from NE Ohio

Your masterful description and detail always kill me, Will. Like this:

"The small town of Cordes was a stop for the California and Arizona Stage Line, where John Turnbull's smithy shop flourished with the ranching, mining, and stagecoach trade. I dismounted and watched for a moment as the hammer rose and fell, again and again in the shaping and forging of a shoe."

Another fantastic story. Great job.

L.T.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you LT.

Praise is always welcome from a great writer.


RevLady profile image

RevLady 5 years ago from Lantana, Florida

I am an old west fan and this story was fantastic. I also love surprise endings which is why I am a fan of the great mystery author James Patterson. Loved this hub. Glad you found me so I could find you (smile).

Love and peace,

Forever His


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks RevLady!

Read on...almost all are western short stories.


Lyn.Stewart profile image

Lyn.Stewart 5 years ago from Auckland, New Zealand

wow loved it ... dont stop writing is all I can say.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi Lyn and thank you!

Feel free to look around. You're in New Zealand, correct?


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

Atmospheric, relentlessly paced and tautly written. Will Starr, Cormac McCarthy better watch out! You have a great economy of words ( something I should learn!) and your twist was well worth the read.awesome, Sir!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Docmo!

Cormac McCarthy is probably safe. :-)


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

Hi, Will, I seem to have got myself a WillStarr night of reading! lol got my cuppa, and a cigarette and my feet are tucked up on the sofa! lol I loved this, and the ending was amazing, cheers nell


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Enjoy Nell!

In fact, I just wrote a new one.


mquee profile image

mquee 5 years ago from Columbia, SC

Wow Will! Another thumbs up!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks, Mquee!

I'm glad you approve, my friend!


Mrs. J. B. profile image

Mrs. J. B. 5 years ago from Southern California

BRAVO!!!! I loved it... I loved all the twists and turns. You had me on the edge of my chair... Boy you know how to tell a story...


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Mrs. J. B.! Happy to please!


Aka Professor M 5 years ago

There is something distinctive about an individuals mark in a genre that is Known by so many Great Authors. Zane Gray, Max Brand, Louis L'Amour, A.B (Bud) Guthrie and J.P.S Brown springs to mind as I read this hub!

Great Setting used, Plot creativity, and unique Character development ,WillStarr! What really impressed me most was the intelligent use of these Characters and the revelation of their relationship to the hanged man!

I Voted it up! Well done, WillStarr Bravo!

Regards Mike (Aka Professor M!) ;D


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi, Mike, and thank you. I grew up reading Grey, L'Amour, and Brand, so there may be a little of each of them in my own efforts.


Aka Professor M 5 years ago

You may have grown up with them Will but the uniqueness of this read has shown me and a good many others that you have your own way of telling a tale!

This for me, is the True test for originality and you, Sir have it! Best Regards, Will! Following the setting sun ,I Remain Mike (Aka Professor M!) ;D


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Mike.


thelyricwriter profile image

thelyricwriter 5 years ago from West Virginia

Will, if someone read your stories, they would sign you in an instant. You just amaze me every time. Your an inspiration as well. You talk to everyone and give them advice and comments. Your a class A act Will. You deserve that recognition Will. As for the story, "in the case of Tim, John Benton, you are the father!" Brilliant Will. Can I ask have you tried to get published or would you want too? If you don't mind of course. Great story.


LABrashear profile image

LABrashear 5 years ago from My Perfect Place, USA

I agree with thelyricwriter. You have such an amazing talent. You have an ability to draw a person into your world! I love reading your stories and am still trying to read more. I will buy your books when they are published! :)


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi, LABrashear, and the admiration is mutual. Thank you.


thelyricwriter profile image

thelyricwriter 5 years ago from West Virginia

It is great to know you can come to your page Will and have a great read my friend.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi, thelyricwriter,

I thought I answered your first comment, but I guess I forgot to post it! Thank you for your kind words, and yes, I am working on publishing.


wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

You know, I don't think I've ever read Western stories like these before. They are real PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE in the Western genre. Its almost as if, say, someone like John Saul (the psychological suspense writer, contemporary of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, etc) were writing Western stories.

Anyway, well done and voted up.

Take it easy.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Hi wingedcentaur!

Thanks for the great comment!


Ken S Harris profile image

Ken S Harris 4 years ago from Richmond, KY

Loved it! Keep up the good work. A very interesting read! It was a very powerful part of the story when the Sheriff touched the rope after the hanging, added so much power to the ending!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thanks Ken!


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

Oh this one sends shivers down my spine, found this through your interview with Maria


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Rosemay!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

Still loving your story-telling !!!


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona Author

Thank you, Audrey!

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