Hangman's Tree (Short Story No. 22)
These short stories will be part of the sequel to my novel The Lady Who Loved Bones. Any suggestions for improvement or for future stories are welcome.
Notches in the tree
The advertising for the wild west circus performance was a huge success. People came from far and wide to Helena for the event. Residents and visitors lined the major thoroughfares as the performers paraded along the main street to the rousing music of the circus band.
For some, like the Chinese prostitute May Ling, murder not circus was the word of the day. The first murder in Helena that citizens could recall occurred a little more than two years previously. On June 7, 1865, John Keene killed Harry Slater outside a Bridge Street saloon. The vigilance group, in the absence of any “official” law dispatched with Keene at Hangman’s Tree in Dry Gulch. Upon the arrival of territorial Supreme Court justice Lyman Munson, he was informed by Robert Barnes, editor of the Helena Herald, that eight necks had been stretched on that particular tree. The judge expressed disgust that most of those victims had never had a trial. He now was in Helena because Barnes had telegraphed him about the circus and the possibility of some imminent hangings.
Marshal Neil Howie held court at the Last Chance Saloon with those who had volunteered to help with the plan to capture the Slim Perkins gang and cohorts. Most expressed optimism that tomorrow at this time Hangman’s Tree would have more notches in its trunk, likely without a trial.
“Who made you the Queen of Sheba?” Shorty directed at Marshal Howie.
“Say what?” Howie snapped. “Are you accusing me of being a lawman in drag?”
“No,” Shorty replied, “that’s your pal, Pinky, the Pinkerton agent in pink. I was just wondering who put you in charge.”
“Good question,” Sheriff Hiram Brown said, appearing to be mulling it over.
Helen James snarled at Sheriff Brown, “You are the sheriff of Virginia City not Helena, dumb ass. The marshal is the authority if the situation is that local authority is lacking.” She went on to explain that the U. S. Marshal Service was created by the first Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789, the same legislation that established the federal judicial system. The agency was established basically to represent the federal government’s interest at the local level. Specifically, to serve subpoenas, warrants, make arrests, handle prisoners, rent the courtroom and jail space, hire the bailiffs and other court personnel, make sure at trial the prisoners are present, jurors are available, and witnesses on time.
“So my former fiancé Seth Morris was your responsibility when he got burned alive in jail,” Anne Hope, the bearded lady, challenged.
“Yes, unfortunately, that’s true,” Howie admitted. “The man who murdered him has been apprehended. Helen James shot him dead in the street. He drew first.”
“Yup,” Shorty concurred, “She can shoot faster’n you can spit and shout howdy. So who gets to do the honor of hanging whatever desperadoes we catch on Hangman’s Tree? We had a hangman on the way, but he got hisself murdered, the dumb fat slob.”
A bad hair day
For the benefit of the group, Pinkerton agent Helen James recalled the case of the hangman, Fatty Foster. He was on the stagecoach with Helen, Anne, and others traveling to Helena. Fatty had said that hangman was a good job, that he was good at it, that he was proud of getting rid of humanity’s evil, and that nobody had ever survived one of his hangings. He had pulled a rope from his bag and said, “Used this one for seven hangings. It’s made of the finest hemp and treated to keep it from slipping. You need a big knot like mine so that the man’s neck breaks when he drops. Otherwise the condemned man will strangle, not a pretty sight. He kicks and twists for what seems like forever.” Then Captain Taz the outlaw who had led the stagecoach robbery shot Fatty right between the eyes when he refused to take off his clothes. Helen had kept Fatty’s ropes and showed them to the group.
“Wells, you witnessed some hangings,” Shorty said. “Tell us about them.”
“Almost got strung up myself once,” Wells admitted. “Not that I did anything to deserve the death penalty. The sheriff didn’t appreciate his wife’s romantic interest in me. She smuggled a gun into the jail, and I made a hasty exit after persuading a deputy to unlock my cell.”
Wells went on to describe the hangings of horse thieves he had been privy to in the Helena area, and seemed to be rather obsessed by the subject. He reminisced that he had attended the execution by hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators in Washington. He told of how Mary Surratt, the first woman to be hanged by the federal government, screamed like a raving lunatic while the three men, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Alzerodt walked to the 12-foot gallows rather docilely. The story went, according to Wells that Alzerodt was a coward. He was supposed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got drunk in the hotel bar instead. The entire conspiracy was in retribution for the plot, which became known as the Dahlgren Affair, by the Union to assassinate Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders. The orders to carry it out got published by the newspapers in Richmond and made it all the way over to Europe.
Hex Hawkins and Bob Wells had discussed such matters as they calmly hanged the five Cheyenne braves, who muttered their death chants. These were the ones who had raped and murdered the females from the first farm they passed out of Fort Smith. And then Wells scalped the Cheyenne, which disgusted Hex, but he didn’t stop him. But Hex did stop him when Wells removed a dead warrior’s breechcloth and appeared to be ready to remove the genitals with his knife.
“You still got those scalps?” Shorty inquired.
“Sure do.” Wells responded proudly. “Here’s one.” He pulled a scalp from his pocket and waved it around. “The others are tied to my saddle.”
We never sleep
Colonel Wilbur Sanders had joined the group, having come from Virginia City. At Helen’s prompting, he repeated what he had told her there at the Bale of Hay Saloon when she first arrived. He indicated that he had been instrumental in the hanging of Sheriff Henry Plummer. And in that of his comrade in crime, Boone Helm, the Kentucky Cannibal.
Shorty asked, knowing that Colonel Sanders was a lawyer, “How is an apple like a lawyer?” After there was no response but shrugs Shorty said, “They both look good hanging from a tree.”
Suddenly a group of residents came running into the saloon, panicked and shouting.
“What’s wrong?” Marshal Howie questioned.
“Someone is hanging from that tree!” one of them responded.
“You mean from Hangman’s Tree?”
“Yes, that’s the tree,” the citizen confirmed.
The group hurried out to look. There was a cloth bag over the victim’s head. They cut the person down and removed the bag. Most of the witnesses gasped. Lucy, the attractive redheaded telegraph operator and sometime girlfriend of Bob Wells, shrieked, “That’s Velma Kleinschmidt, widow of the late T. H. Kleinschmidt, head cashier of the bank, and one of Bob Well’s other girlfriends. Put the bag back over her head. She is too ugly.”
“You’d probably be ugly too if somebody stretched your neck,” Shorty interjected.
Bob Wells said, “I bet she screamed like a raving lunatic when they strung her up, just like Mary Surratt. Of course, Velma went on like a raving lunatic most of the time anyway.”
“I wonder if Velma talked,” Helen James mused.
“Talked about what?” Wells questioned. “How good I am at sex?”
“Actually,” Helen said, “my initial best guess is that someone murdered poor Velma to keep her from talking. If that’s the case, my number one suspect is this Captain Taz person.”
Suddenly Sheriff Hiram Brown, who had left the group briefly, came running up to Marshal Howie and blurted, “There’s been another murder!”
“Yup, I know,” Howie responded. “Poor Velma, I’m going to miss her.”
“No, I don’t mean her. Someone cut my deputy’s throat.”
Marshal Howie said, “I know about Russ Lane.”
“I don’t mean him,” Sheriff Brown said. “My other deputy, Ned Helm.”
“Damn,” Howie muttered. “So Helen, you figure Captain Taz for that murder too?”
“No,” she answered.
“Well who then?” Howie persisted.
“I’ll let you know,” Helen replied, “after I have a look at the body and conduct an investigation. Didn’t you go to marshal school like I went to detective school?” she asked sarcastically.”