Read The Hangings Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

The Hangings (16 page)

Boze was asking, soft, "What did you do? About Bodeen?"

"Ignored him at first," Mrs. Parsons said. "Then I begged him to go away. I told him my husband was violently jealous but he didn't believe me. I also thought I was alone, you see. I thought Jubal had gone off to work in the fields."

"But he hadn't?"

"Oh, he had. But he came back while Bodeen was here and overheard part of what was said."

I asked, "Did he show himself to Bodeen?"

"No. He just watched and listened. After a while the drifter grew tired of tormenting me and went away. Then Jubal came out. He didn't say a word to me. He just saddled his horse and went away. Followed that man into Tule Bend and when he caught up with him after dark he struck him on the head and then he hanged him."

"Just for deviling you?" Boze said. "He murdered a man in cold blood just for that?''

"Yes. He did."

"And Jacob Pike?" I asked. "Why him?"

"The same reason."

"Pike was forward with you? Insulted you?"

She nodded. "Last Thursday, at the livery. When I went there looking for Jubal, that boy . . . he made a lewd suggestion. Veiled, but plain enough. Jubal must have heard, he walked in soon afterward."

Boze still wore his fuddled look. He said, "Why did he hang them? I don't understand the meanin' of that."

"You didn't know him," Mrs. Parsons said. "You just . . . you didn't know how he was. He used to say that if a man thought evil, and spoke evil, it was the same as doing evil. He said if a man was wicked, he deserved to die for his wickedness and the world would be a better place for his leaving it."

"Religious fanatic, then?"

"No. He was no more religious than most men. He was
moral
—a moral fanatic. He believed in absolute right and wrong, good and evil, with nothing in between. For a time after we were married, I admired that in him. There was no trouble then. But later
 
. . . he changed. Almost before I knew it, he became a stranger. Part of it was the things people thought and said about me and to my face. He worshipped the ground I stand on—he truly did. He couldn't bear the thought of anyone sullying me. The other reasons why he changed . . . I don't know. He worked too hard, for so little. And he was inflexible—he did not know how to bend. A person has to know how to bend, like a sapling in the wind. You cannot survive unless you learn how to bend."

"You must have come to hate him," Boze said. "To do what you did."

"Not so much hate—fear. I was afraid of him and for him. He was so big, so strong-willed, and yet underneath so weak. I used to tremble sometimes just to look at him."

"Did he try to hurt you, is that it?"

She had finished dismantling the separator and was sitting now with her hands folded in her lap and her head bowed, like a child at a prayer meeting. "No," she said to her hands. "He hurt me but not the way you mean. He didn't once lay a hand to me the whole nine years we were married. It was what he was, what he became, that hurt me."

"Then why did you shoot him?"

"Three men already dead," she said, "and last night he went away to kill someone else.'' Her head came up partway. "Did he, Mr. Evans?" she asked me. "Kill someone last night?"

"He tried to," I said.

"But he didn't?"

"No."

"Thank God. Who was it?"

"Me," I said.

". . . I should have known. It must have been because you were here on Sunday, alone with me, and I gave you the Christmas candle. You must have mentioned it to him; he asked me about it that night, what made me give it to you. In his sickness he must have thought . . . no, it doesn't matter now what he thought."

I said nothing. There was nothing to say. A little innocent thing like the gift of a candle, and it had almost cost me my life; he had wanted to
hang
me for accepting it from her. It might have been funny if it were not so monstrous.

"When I heard him leave," she said, "I knew he was after another man. By the time I got the rifle it was too late to stop him, he was already gone. So I waited for him. I sat up until dawn, with the rifle on my lap, waiting, and when I heard him ride in I went to the barn and I shot him. I didn't give him a chance to speak, I just . . . shot him. As you would a rabid dog, to protect yourself and others and to put him out of his misery. You do understand, don't you?"

"Yes, Mrs. Parsons," I said. "We understand."

She looked away from us, out over the fields—and a long ways beyond them, at something only she could see. In the silence that windmill shriek was like the constant dabbing of saltpeter in an open wound.

After a time she said, "No roots—that was part of it too. What led him to do such terrible things. Moving here, moving there, always moving—three states and five homesteads in less than ten years. But . . . oh, the last two places, the two before we came here . . . I should have known. No, I
did
know but I wouldn't believe."

She wasn't making sense. Or I thought she wasn't until she said, "He held the job of private hangman a long time, Jubal did—a long time." She shifted position as she spoke, so that her face came out of shadow and into the sunlight. And what I saw in her eyes, as much as the next words she uttered, put a chill on my neck like the night wind does when it blows across a graveyard.

"Those men he killed here weren't the first," she said. "There were at least two others. God help me, at least two others . . . and how many more that I never heard about?"

Chapter 20

WE TOOK JUBAL PARSONS' CORPSE BACK TO TOWN IN HIS farm wagon, with Boze driving and Mrs. Parsons on the seat beside him. She sat very prim and stiff-backed, the way she had on the porch steps, with her hands folded in her lap. As far as I could tell, riding along behind with Boze's dun on a lead, she did not say a word all the way in.

It was dusk when we crossed the Basin Drawbridge. There was a restless crowd up near the Swede's on north Main, some of the men carrying lighted torches—always a bad sign. I rode up alongside the wagon, told Boze to stop and wait for me, and then gigged Rowdy up to where the crowd was milling. There were some jeers when they first saw me, but when I stood up in the stirrups and began shouting them down, telling them about Jubal Parsons, they quieted. By the time I finished there was a hush. In that hush I wheeled away, rode back to the wagon. And as we continued up to Main I saw that the crowd was already starting to break up, the men extinguishing their torches and filtering into the saloons in little groups.

We went first to Doc Petersen's and put Mrs. Parsons in his care. Then we drove to Spencer's Undertaking Parlor and delivered the dead man to Obe. And then we proceeded to the constable's office—which we found empty—and waited for word to get around to Mayor Gladstone and Joe Perkins.

It did not take long. Inside of twenty minutes both of them had arrived, along with all four members of the town council and quite a few others. Boze and I used up an hour in explanations and answering questions. Everyone seemed satisfied then, except Perkins; he was miffed because he reckoned we had stolen thunder that was rightfully his. He all but accused me outright of being after his job, and when I laughed in his face he stormed out. The mayor was so relieved that he failed to chastise me for keeping Emmett Bodeen's death a secret from him. Nobody else said anything about it, either. My job and Boze's were safe.

When the meeting finally broke up Boze went home to his wife and kids and the others went home to their families. There would be plenty of talk tomorrow and on through the week, but then it would die down and things would settle back to normal. The hangings were destined to be more than just a thrilling memory for some, though: Morton Brandeis, Lucy Brandeis, Maude Seeley. Boze and me. Maybe Ivy, too. For Greta Parsons, they would always be a nightmare. And it would be a long time before her life settled back to normal, if it ever did again.

I did not go home like the other men. There was something I had to do first—something I should have done weeks ago.

With Rowdy under me, I rode south out of town and on up the hill to the Dalton house. Hannah was sitting on the enclosed part of the porch tonight, in deference to the cold, her hair done up and fastened with a comb like usual and a green shawl over her shoulders. Her welcoming smile warmed me. And for the first time, as I sat beside her, I did not feel a trace of awkwardness in her presence.

When I told her about Jubal and Greta Parsons I could see that she felt the tragedy of it in the same way I did, and that it made her sad. She and Mrs. Parsons were so much alike. Both wronged in so many ways; both forced to live with death, to watch men they had once loved commit murder and then suffer the consequences of their acts. Good women, trying to live decent lives but trapped by poor judgment on the one hand and the actions and malicious gossip of fools on the other.

Yes, and in Hannah's case one of the fools was me. In my own selfish fashion I had done her as much of an injustice as Ivy and her ilk. Sneaking up here after dark to see her, and pretending to everyone else that I wasn't; worried about
my
reputation, about keeping up appearances. Only once had I come calling during the daytime—yesterday morning, on business. I recalled that odd smile just before I left her yesterday, and the way she had said, "Tonight or tomorrow night. Any night at all." Now I knew what both the smile and the words really meant.

On the way here I had worked out how I would say all of this to her. It was not easy, getting the words to come, but once I had some of them trickling out—the pump primed— the rest came spilling free in a rush. I asked her to forgive me for being such a blind fool. I asked her to permit me to call on her during the day as well as in the evening; I said I would admire to take her to supper now and then, to socials at the Odd Fellows Hall, on picnics and other outings.

I watched her face closely as I spoke. And I saw the shape of her expression change, grow softer; I saw part of her wall begin to crumble. Then, when she asked, "Are you speaking as a suitor, Mr. Evans?" and I said, "Yes, I am, Miss Dalton," I saw the rest of the wall collapse and I knew that what the poor ugly duckling had never dared to hope for had been within close reach all along.

Hannah said, "But are you sure it's what you want? There will be those who shun you, just as they shun me. . . ."

"Let them. It's you I care about, not this blasted town or most of the people in it. If I had found the courage I would have declared myself long ago. But I scarcely found enough to admit my feelings to myself."

She reached out and touched my hand, let her fingers rest there. "You aren't the only one who lacked courage," she said.

"Then your answer is yes?"

"My answer is yes."

"There'll be no more delays, then. Tomorrow at noon, with you dressed in your finest, we'll stroll arm in arm down Main Street, have lunch at the Union Hotel, then take coffee at my home so I may present you to my sister Ivy."

"Won't she be delighted?" Hannah said, and laughed.

I laughed with her, thinking of Ivy's face when I walked in with Hannah on my arm. It was good to laugh again and to feel this much happiness, even though it had taken three deaths and another woman's bitter tragedy to bring it about. But that was the way of things. Good sometimes grows out of the worst calamity, and the true fools are those who fail to embrace it when it comes their way.

Without planning to I kissed her, as if I had taken such a liberty many times before. Turned out to be as easy and natural as winking your eye. And even sweeter than I ever imagined it would be.

 

GREAT BOOKS

E-BOOKS

AUDIOBOOKS

& MORE

 

Visit us today

www.speakingvolumes.us

Other books

And Don't Bring Jeremy by Marilyn Levinson
All the Pope's Men by John L. Allen, Jr.
Go: A Surrender by Jane Nin
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
The Loner: The Bounty Killers by Johnstone, J. A.