I walk into the Sheriff’s office, Bible in hand, gun belt around my waist. I take my hat off and nod to Deputy Bill. He’s a lanky fellow with unkempt hair and a deep tan. His feet are propped on the scarred desk where his hat sits.
“Yah hear to see the prisoner off, huh, Pastor Michaels?”
Bill stands from the rickety chair that groans and grumbles as it moves. He comes over to me and claps me on the shoulder and smiles.
“Yes, Son,” I say. “Each man should be given a chance to make their peace.”
“Even that old sack of crap in there?”
Bill thumbs in the direction of the two cells that take up the far end of the building.
“Yes, son. Even Mr. Harris should be allowed to make his peace before meeting his Maker.”
I set my hat on the deputy’s desk, right next to his, and unsnap my gun belt. If there is one thing I have learned when it comes to dealing with the condemned, it is to never take a gun into a desperate man’s cell … unless you intend to use it. I made that mistake once. It almost cost me my life when James Reese managed to get the pistol out of my holster. I was young and naïve then, thinking no criminal would possibly attack a man of the cloth. If not for the smarts of the Sheriff, then I would be dead, and the outlaw would have gone free.
But, that was a long time ago. Since then, I have changed and the way I approach each of the men I pray over has changed, as well.
“Luke Harris, stand away from the bars and face the wall.” The deputy’s voice is somewhat monotone but forceful in the same rite. He’s not your typical sheriff’s right-hand man, but he’s not one to let others manhandle him. Bill’s just a good old boy trying to keep the peace in a town that really doesn’t believe in peace.
Harris, a hardened outlaw who once killed his own wife for cooking his eggs the wrong way, stands, moves to the back of the cell and faces the gray wall. The deputy opens the door and I walk in. The sound of steel on steel, clanging together behind me always leaves me unsettled, and it is no different on this day.
“Preacher-man, I’ll be right here watching everything if he tries anything funny.”
I nod and set my Bible on the old cot that has been the final sleeping quarters for many men before their deaths.
“Mr. Harris, I am Pastor Michaels and—”
“I don’t need your prayers, Preacher. Just let me be until they string me up.”
“Mr. Harris, I don’t think that is the attitude one wishes to take into the afterlife.”
Harris turns to me. His eyes are slits and his mouth is bent scowl. He’s taller than I am and his dark hair is greasy. A black beard peppered with gray covers the lower part of his face. I can feel the anger and hate spilling from him and I know that this is a lost cause. However, it is my duty to my Lord to try and talk to him, to make him understand the afterlife and what awaits him if he doesn’t repent.
“Preacher man, you need to mosie on out of here as fast as you can.”
“I can’t, Mr. Harris. I am here to see you, and I am offering you penance for your sins.”
“Unless you can keep them from stringing me up, then we have nothing to talk about.”
“This is about forgiveness, Son.”
Harris steps forward, his arms reaching out for me. He takes me by my lapels and pushes me against the bars. “I don’t need your forgiveness, Preacher. Do you understand?”
“Let go of him,” Deputy Bill yells from behind me. I hear the hammer cock on his six shooter. “Let go of him, now or you won’t make it to the gallows.”
I grip the bars behind me, preparing to hold myself up just in case he strikes me as the look on his face says he wishes to. Instead, he releases me and turns back toward the small window. I peer around him and see the gallows he will swing from soon. Though I am not privy to his thoughts I feel the need to talk to him.
“Even the thief who hung on the cross was offered forgiveness.”
He says nothing.
“He wishes for none of His children to perish, but have—”
“Eternal life?” Harris interrupts me. “Eternal life? Who wants to live forever, Preacher man?”
“Eternal life in Heaven, Son.”
“I don’t want your Heaven. I don’t believe in your Heaven. So, you can take your Bible and be going now.”
I nod and pick up my Bible. “Mr. Harris, do you have any last words before you go to the gallows?”
“Yeah, tell the executioner I want him to look into my eyes before he pulls that lever. I want him to remember me for the rest of his life. Tell him he will have to live with murdering another man. And I’m sure no amount of forgiveness will get him into heaven.”
I stand and watch as Sheriff Loadholt leads Mr. Harris from the cell and into the dusty streets. The crowd that has gathered parts. Several of them make obscene remarks to him. I tell myself to pray for them, for their souls. But as I watch, the only prayer I can offer up is the one for Mr. Harris.
“Have mercy on him.”
It is simple, but sometimes the simplest prayers are the best.
Harris still wears his dark pants and dirty shirt. I can see the nervousness and fear in his face even though he looks straight ahead to the gallows. I think about his parting words and I am saddened by his lack of desire to know salvation, to know that he is going to a better place.
Deputy Bill holds his rifle on Harris as they make their way up the steps to the platform. They lead him to where the trap door will soon open and slide the noose over his head and around his neck. Sheriff Loadholt tightens it and steps aside.
“Luke Harris, for the crimes of murder, cattle thieving and bank robbery, you have been sentenced to death. You will hang by rope from your neck until such time as you are dead. Your body shall remain hanging for a period of three days as a warning to those who would come to Turner’s Mill and commit these crimes.”
I think about the cross and the three days that passed from death to resurrection.
“Any last words?” Loadholt asks.
“Yes, just one thing.”
Harris turns to the executioner and sneers. “Look at me. Look in my eyes. My death, my blood is on your hands. You can rot just like I will and maybe the preacher can pray over you on your deathbed.”
When he is done the Sheriff nods. I look down, saddened by the task before me. I lift the hood from my head and stare into Harris’ scared eyes. “I have been forgiven.” I pull the lever and the bottom falls out from beneath Harris. I hear the pop of his neck as his skull dislocates from his spine.
He spins and kicks his legs though I am certain he is already dead. Minutes pass, and finally, he is still, other than the swaying of his body from the rope.
I lie here in bed. My thoughts center on Harris, his eyes and the fear in them when I revealed myself to him before I pulled the lever. I am left here to wonder if he repented in that second or two before his life rushed from him. I hope so, but I don’t honestly believe he did.
Another town, another day. I pass the saloon on my way to the Sheriff’s office. Another member of the condemned legion of men await me. This one is an older man, one who shot and killed a lawman in another town. They didn’t want to wait for me to arrive, but they had no choice. My charges are many and my time is precious.
I’m not big into westerns. Sure, I liked Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, as movies, but I’ve never been a old west fan. However, I do have a handful of stories based on the dirt and dust and ruthlessness of the wild, wild west. Righteous Justice is just one of those stories.
This story stemmed from one of those flash fiction writing prompts I mentioned a few stories ago. The prompt was to write a story about an executioner. This was my attempt at it.
I hope you enjoyed Righteous Justice, and please like this post, comment on it and let your friends know about it. The more folks share this, the more my words can get out to others. Thank y’all and have a great day.
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