Scarlet - A Short Story
Clee Hanson had been postmaster of Scarlet for five years, and he took the job seriously, including wanted posters, so when he noticed the stranger having breakfast at Mabel’s, he was suspicious. Of course, all strangers made Clee suspicious, but this one was special, because he matched the description of the man who robbed the express office in Prescott in December. Of course, Clee himself also matched the description, but then, strangers always made Clee suspicious.
Clee pulled the circular out of his shirt pocket, and silently pointed at the stranger. One by one, the four other men seated around the table compared the description to the unaware stranger and nodded at Clee. Fat Jimmy Larson grinned, and wiped the grease off his lips with his dirty sleeve. He was the town’s self-appointed hangman, and he liked his work.
Bart Crawford finished the last of his beef and eggs, and cleaned the plate with a slice of bread. The redheaded waitress smiled at him and held up the coffee pot, a question in her eyes. He nodded, and she topped off his cup.
“Will you be in town long?” Her eyes were a clear invitation, and her lips formed a playful pout.
He grinned at her. “Any reason I should hang around?”
She had just started to answer, when her eyes suddenly darted over his shoulder and her lips parted in shock. Bart felt the cold steel of a pistol barrel in the back of his neck, and he stiffened. Men appeared on both sides and he was suddenly surrounded by hard faces. A hand reached over his shoulder and dropped a wanted circular in front of him.
“That description fits you right proper, stranger.”
Bart Crawford read the poster and glanced around side to side. “Maybe so, but it also fits half the men in this room!”
“We know all these men. We don’t know you.”
“That’s mighty thin, mister. My only crime is being a stranger?”
“Stand up, and raise those hands while I check for weapons.”
The red-headed waitress broke her silence. “Clee Hanson, are you going to hang another man? This man don’t look like a criminal at all! He’s just passing through!”
“Shut up Julie. This here is man’s work. You just fetch food for folks, and mind your business.”
“I will not be silent! You have no authority to hang anyone!”
“I am a federal postmaster, and that makes me the closest thing to the law in these parts. I’ll do my duty, and you’ll be silent!”
Bart Crawford slowly turned and viewed Clee Hanson for the first time, and a chill went down his spine. The man was clearly enjoying himself, and he could see the madness dancing in his eyes. He realized that these people were dead serious and he was in mortal danger.
“He ain’t armed, Clee.”
“Well, of course I ain’t armed! Why would I be armed?”
He licked his suddenly dry lips.
“I think I would like to see the town marshal, or the sheriff.”
Clee Hanson’s grin grew larger. “Ain’t got neither. I’m the only law in Scarlet, and I know a bad man when I see one! You robbed that express office sure enough, and now you’ll hang!”
“Hang? That poster don’t say nothing about hanging anyone or that anyone was killed! In any case, I ain’t never even been in Prescott. You’d be hanging an innocent man!”
“Well, we can hardly expect you to ‘fess up, now can we? We hang all you villains and scoundrels here in Scarlet on account of we don’t have no jail. Can’t let you go and can’t keep you neither, so you don't give us no choice, stranger. The way I see it, it’s your own damn fault.”
“My fault? All I did was stop for breakfast!”
“Well, you shouldn’t have robbed no express office!”
Bart Crawford stared all around in exasperation.
“I did not rob no express office. You’re crazy! You are all crazy!”
The grin disappeared from Clee Hanson’s face, replaced by a look of cold anger. Why did they all say that? He was not crazy! He was just dedicated. “Lock him up in the woodshed behind the Post Office, boys. We’ll hang him at noon.”
The town gallows was a good one, and it too was behind the one room post office. It had five steps up the platform, a trapdoor, a lever to pull, and two posts supporting a rough hewn beam. All but the beam had been sanded and varnished. It was obviously a work of love.
Fat Jimmy Larson made a show of tying off the rope, and measuring the drop. He pointed out to Bart Crawford that it was a brand new rope, and would be buried with him. It was deemed the proper thing to do, as a show of respect to the deceased. He patted Bart on the shoulder and reassured him that his neck would instantly break, killing him quickly and painlessly. Bart told him to go straight to hell and Larson scowled at him. Clee Hanson looked at his post office issued pocket watch and glanced at Bart.
“Twenty minutes, son. Best make your peace with the Almighty.”
The tall man with graying hair stepped into the coolness of Mabel’s Café, and looked around. The lone waitress was staring out the window, oblivious of his presence. Her red hair was beautiful in the narrow shaft of sunlight.
“Sort of empty for the noon feed, ain’t it?”
Julie French spun around, and faced him. “There’s a hanging about to happen, mister. All the men are over there to watch. Women ain’t allowed, although I would not watch such a horror anyway.” She put her hand to her heart, looking back out the window. “I think he’s an innocent man.” She looked back at the stranger, but he had vanished.
Fat Jimmy pulled the knot of the noose tight against Bart’s left ear, allowing the slack of the rope to droop off his shoulder. “Ain’t got no black hood, so’s you’ll just have to shut your eyes. We got one on order from Saint Louis, though.”
He positioned Bart over the trap door and stepped over to the lever, nodding at Clee Hanson who began droning in solemn tones.
“Mister Stranger, you have been found guilty by a party of good town folks of robbin’ an express office, and on account of we can’t jail you or let you go neither, we are about to hang you. Any last words?”
Bart glared around, his neck twisting under the noose. “Y’all can go to hell!”
“You’ll be there in a few seconds, your ownself.” Clee signaled Fat Jimmy, who put both hands on the lever.
“Stay your hands mister, or you’ll pull back bloody stumps.” The tall man with the graying hair lifted a short, double-barreled shotgun from beneath his duster, and then pulled his lapel back far enough to reveal the shiny, silver badge of a federal marshal.
Fat Jimmy slowly lifted both hands in the air and stepped away from the lever.
“Take the noose off that man, but leave his hands tied, until I sort all this out.”
“The man what robbed that express office was arrested near two weeks ago, and he confessed in exchange for a shorter sentence. You damn fools were about to hang an innocent man.” He pointed at Clee Hanson. “You have the authority to sort the mail, and that’s about it. The law is my business, not yours. You lick your stamps and I’ll do the arrestin’ from now on.” He glared at Clee, until the postmaster hung his head.
The marshal was seated on a stool at Mabel’s lunch counter, his back to the counter and his shotgun in his lap. He was facing the five men in the hanging party, who were seated at a table, looking very uncomfortable. Bart Crawford was seated at the adjoining table, glaring at them and rubbing his rope-irritated neck.
The marshal sipped his coffee, eyeing the men over the brim of his cup. “If it had been five minutes later, all of you would be under arrest, pending trial for murder. You’d best hope that those you have hung were all guilty, or I may arrest you anyway.” He pointed a finger at Bart. “If I hear you molested this man any further after I’m gone, I’ll come back and arrest the lot of you. Do you hear me?”
The men nodded sullenly, and Bart spoke up.
“If it’s all the same to you Marshal, I’ll ride along with you. I have no further business in this town anyway, and I don’t trust this bunch.”
The marshal shrugged. “Suits me. I can use the company.”
They rode silently, putting miles between them and town of Scarlet. When they made camp that evening, the marshal regarded Bart silently as he built their fire and made coffee. He sipped the cup Bart handed him, and then spoke for the first time.
“Did you rob that express office?”
"Hell yeah! Got five hundred and fifty in gold.”
He eyed Bart, and took another sip. “Where is it”?
“I cached it at the line cabin, behind that loose chimney stone.”
“Dammit, Bart! How many times have Ma and I told you not to do that? I’d lose my job as Marshal if any loot was found on my ranch! Use your head, boy.”
“Sorry Pa. I won’t do it no more.”
“See that you do not. Now let’s get some rest, son.”