Authors: Stephen King
“Nothing to building a gallows,” House told folks who came to watch. “A child could build one of these.”
He told how a lever-operated beam would run beneath the trapdoor, and how it would be axle-greased to make sure there wouldn’t be any last-minute holdups. “If you have to do a thing like this, you want to do it right the first time,” House said.
In the afternoon, George Andrews put Trusdale on the stand. This occasioned some hissing from the spectators, which Judge Mizell gavelled down, promising to clear the courtroom if folks couldn’t behave themselves.
“Did you enter the Chuck-a-Luck Saloon on the day in question?” Andrews asked when order had been restored.
“I guess so,” Trusdale said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
There was some laughter at that, which Mizell also gavelled down, although he was smiling himself and did not issue a second admonition.
“Did you order two drinks?”
“Yes, sir, I did. Two was all I had money for.”
“But you got another dollar right quick, didn’t you, you hound!” Abel Hines shouted.
Mizell pointed his gavel first at Hines, then at Sheriff Barclay, sitting in the front row. “Sheriff, escort that man out and charge him with disorderly conduct, if you please.”
Barclay escorted Hines out but did not charge him with disorderly conduct. Instead, he asked what had got into him.
“I’m sorry, Otis,” Hines said. “It was seeing him sitting there with his bare face hanging out.”
“You go on downstreet and see if John House needs some help with his work,” Barclay said. “Don’t come back in here until this mess is over.”
“He’s got all the help he needs, and it’s snowing hard now.”
“You won’t blow away. Go on.”
Meanwhile, Trusdale continued to testify. No, he hadn’t left the Chuck-a-Luck wearing his hat, but hadn’t realized it until he got to his place. By then, he said, he was too tired to walk all the way back to town in search of it. Besides, it was dark.
Mizell broke in. “Are you asking this court to believe you walked four miles without realizing you weren’t wearing your damn hat?”
“I guess since I wear it all the time I just figured it must be there,” Trusdale said. This elicited another gust of laughter.
Barclay came back in and took his place next to Dave Fisher. “What are they laughing at?”
“Dummy don’t need a hangman,” Fisher said. “He’s tying the knot all by himself. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s pretty comical, just the same.”
“Did you encounter Rebecca Cline in that alley?” George Andrews asked in a loud voice. With every eye on him, he had discovered a heretofore hidden flair for the dramatic. “Did you encounter her and steal her birthday dollar?”
“No, sir,” Trusdale said.
“Did you kill her?”
“No, sir. I didn’t even know who she was.”
Mr. Cline rose from his seat and shouted, “You did it, you lying son of a bitch!”
“I ain’t lying,” Trusdale said, and that was when Sheriff Barclay believed him.
“I have no further questions,” Andrews said, and walked back to his seat.
Trusdale started to get up, but Mizell told him to sit still and answer a few more questions.
“Do you continue to contend, Mr. Trusdale, that someone stole your hat while you were drinking in the Chuck-a-Luck, and that someone put it on, and went into the alley, and killed Rebecca Cline, and left it there to implicate you?”
Trusdale was silent.
“Answer the question, Mr. Trusdale.”
“Sir, I don’t know what ‘implicate’ means.”
“Do you expect us to believe someone framed you for this heinous murder?”
Trusdale considered, twisting his hands together. At last he said, “Maybe somebody took it by mistake and throwed it away.”
Mizell looked out at the rapt gallery. “Did anyone here take Mr. Trusdale’s hat by mistake?”
There was silence, except for the snow hitting the windows. The first big storm of winter had arrived. That was the winter townsfolk called the Wolf Winter, because the wolves came down from the Black Hills in packs to hunt for garbage.
“I have no more questions,” Mizell said. “And due to the weather we are going to dispense with any closing statements. The jury will retire to consider a verdict. You have three choices, gentlemen—innocent, manslaughter, or murder in the first degree.”
“Girlslaughter, more like it,” someone remarked.
Sheriff Barclay and Dave Fisher retired to the Chuck-a-Luck. Abel Hines joined them, brushing snow from the shoulders of his coat. Dale Gerard served them schooners of beer on the house.
“Mizell might not have had any more questions,” Barclay said, “but I got one. Never mind the hat. If Trusdale killed her, how come we never found that silver dollar?”
“Because he got scared and threw it away,” Hines said.
“I don’t think so. He’s too bone-stupid. If he’d had that dollar, he’d have gone back to the Chuck-a-Luck and drunk it up.”
“What are you saying?” Dave asked. “That you think he’s innocent?”
“I’m saying I wish we’d found that cartwheel.”
“Maybe he lost it out a hole in his pocket.”
“He didn’t have any holes in his pockets,” Barclay said. “Only one in his boot, and it wasn’t big enough for a dollar to get through.” He drank some of his beer. The tumbleweeds blowing up Main Street looked like ghostly brains in the snow.
The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”
Mizell asked Trusdale if he had anything to say before sentence was passed.
“I can’t think of nothing,” Trusdale said. “Just I never killed that girl.”
The storm blew for three days. John House asked Barclay how much he reckoned Trusdale weighed, and Barclay said he guessed the man went around one-forty. House made a dummy out of burlap sacks and filled it with stones, weighing it on the hostelry scales until the needle stood pat on one-forty. Then he hanged the dummy while half the town stood around in the snowdrifts and watched. The trial run went all right.
On the night before the execution, the weather cleared. Sheriff Barclay told Trusdale he could have anything he wanted for dinner. Trusdale asked for steak and eggs, with home fries on the side soaked in gravy. Barclay paid for it out of his own pocket, then sat at his desk cleaning his fingernails and listening to the steady clink of Trusdale’s knife and fork on the china plate. When it stopped, he went in. Trusdale was sitting on his bunk. His plate was so clean Barclay figured he must have lapped up the last of the gravy like a dog. He was crying.
“Something just come to me,” Trusdale said.
“What’s that, Jim?”
“If they hang me tomorrow morning, I’ll go into my grave with steak and eggs still in my belly. It won’t have no chance to work through.”
For a moment, Barclay said nothing. He was horrified not by the image but because Trusdale had thought of it. Then he said, “Wipe your nose.”
Trusdale wiped it.
“Now listen to me, Jim, because this is your last chance. You were in that bar in the middle of the afternoon. Not many people in there then. Isn’t that right?”
“I guess it is.”
“Then who took your hat? Close your eyes. Think back. See it.”
Trusdale closed his eyes. Barclay waited. At last Trusdale opened his eyes, which were red from crying. “I can’t even remember was I wearing it.”
Barclay sighed. “Give me your plate, and mind that knife.”
Trusdale handed the plate through the bars with the knife and fork laid on it, and said he wished he could have some beer. Barclay thought it over, then put on his heavy coat and Stetson and walked down to the Chuck-a-Luck, where he got a small pail of beer from Dale Gerard. Undertaker Hines was just finishing a glass of wine. He followed Barclay out.
“Big day tomorrow,” Barclay said. “There hasn’t been a hanging here in ten years, and with luck there won’t be another for ten more. I’ll be gone out of the job by then. I wish I was now.”
Hines looked at him. “You really don’t think he killed her.”
“If he didn’t,” Barclay said, “whoever did is still walking around.”
The hanging was at nine o’clock the next morning. The day was windy and bitterly cold, but most of the town turned out to watch. Pastor Ray Rowles stood on the scaffold next to John House. Both of them were shivering in spite of their coats and scarves. The pages of Pastor Rowles’s Bible fluttered. Tucked into House’s belt, also fluttering, was a hood of homespun cloth dyed black.
Barclay led Trusdale, his hands cuffed behind his back, to the gallows. Trusdale was all right until he got to the steps, then he began to buck and cry.
“Don’t do this,” he said. “Please don’t do this to me. Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t kill me.”
He was strong for a little man, and Barclay motioned Dave Fisher to come and lend a hand. Together they muscled Trusdale, twisting and ducking and pushing, up the twelve wooden steps. Once, he bucked so hard all three of them almost fell off, and arms reached up to catch them if they did.
“Quit that and die like a man!” someone shouted.
On the platform, Trusdale was momentarily quiet, but when Pastor Rowles commenced Psalm 51, he began to scream. “Like a woman with her tit caught in the wringer,” someone said later in the Chuck-a-Luck.
“Have mercy on me, O God, after Thy great goodness,” Rowles read, raising his voice to be heard above the condemned man’s shrieks to be let off. “According to the multitude of Thy mercies, do away with mine offenses.”
When Trusdale saw House take the black hood out of his belt, he began to pant like a dog. He shook his head from side to side, trying to dodge the hood. His hair flew. House followed each jerk patiently, like a man who means to bridle a skittish horse.
“Let me look at the mountains!” Trusdale bellowed. Runners of snot hung from his nostrils. “I’ll be good if you let me look at the mountains one more time!”
But House only jammed the hood over Trusdale’s head and pulled it down to his shaking shoulders. Pastor Rowles was droning on, and Trusdale tried to run off the trapdoor. Barclay and Fisher pushed him back onto it. Down below, someone cried, “Ride ‘em, cowboy!”
“Say amen,” Barclay told Pastor Rowles. “For Christ’s sake, say amen.”
“Amen,” Pastor Rowles said, and stepped back, closing his Bible with a clap.
Barclay nodded to House. House pulled the lever. The greased beam retracted and the trap dropped. So did Trusdale. There was a crack when his neck broke. His legs drew up almost to his chin, then fell back limp. Yellow drops stained the snow under his feet.
“There, you bastard!” Rebecca Cline’s father shouted. “Died pissing like a dog on a fireplug. Welcome to Hell.” A few people clapped.
The spectators stayed until Trusdale’s corpse, still wearing the black hood, was laid in the same hurry-up wagon he’d ridden to town in. Then they dispersed.
Barclay went back to the jail and sat in the cell Trusdale had occupied. He sat there for ten minutes. It was cold enough to see his breath. He knew what he was waiting for, and eventually it came. He picked up the small bucket that had held Trusdale’s last drink of beer and vomited. Then he went into his office and stoked up the stove.
He was still there eight hours later, trying to read a book, when Abel Hines came in. He said, “You need to come down to the funeral parlor, Otis. There’s something I want to show you.”
“No. You’ll want to see it for yourself.”
They walked down to the Hines Funeral Parlor & Mortuary. In the back room, Trusdale lay naked on a cooling board. There was a smell of chemicals and shit.
“They load their pants when they die that way,” Hines said. “Even men who go to it with their heads up. They can’t help it. The sphincter lets go.”
“Step over here. I figure a man in your job has seen worse than a pair of shitty drawers.”
They lay on the floor, mostly turned inside out. Something gleamed in the mess. Barclay leaned closer and saw it was a silver dollar. He reached down and plucked it from the crap.
“I don’t understand it,” Hines said. “Son of a bitch was locked up a good long time.”
There was a chair in the corner. Barclay sat down on it so heavily he made a little woof sound. “He must have swallowed it the first time when he saw our lanterns coming. And every time it came out he cleaned it off and swallowed it again.”
The two men stared at each other.
“You believed him,” Hines said at last.
“Fool that I am, I did.”
“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.”
“He went on saying he was innocent right to the end. He’ll most likely stand at the throne of God saying the same thing.”
“Yes,” Hines said.
“I don’t understand. He was going to hang. Either way, he was going to hang. Do you understand it?”
“I don’t even understand why the sun comes up. What are you going to do with that cartwheel? Give it back to the girl’s mother and father? It might be better if you didn’t, because …” Hines shrugged.
Because the Clines knew all along. Everyone in town knew all along. He was the only one who hadn’t known. Fool that he was.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” he said.
The wind gusted, bringing the sound of singing. It was coming from the church. It was the Doxology.