Anders listened to the creak of the boards on the wagon, and the stamp of the horses’ hooves as they tramped through ruts made hard from an early frost. He watched his own horse blowing steamy breath through its nose, and felt its flanks shift under the saddle blanket, heat rising up into his thighs. He looked at the trees, bare from a hard autumn, and sighed. He was just putting off the inevitable.
He steered his horse over until he was riding beside the sheriff. He tilted his head.
Bill nodded back. “Pastor. How can I help you?”
Anders swallowed. He didn’t feel up to his task – it had been a hard cold ride, and these were hard cold men. Still, the good Lord helped those who helped themselves, and hated a coward. He cleared his throat.
“I’d like to talk to the prisoner.”
Bill grunted. “He lies.”
“Everyone lies,” Anders said. “He still deserves a chance to come clean before he stands at the feet of his God.”
Bill blew a breath out, white and misty in the morning air. “Be my guest, Pastor. I’m just here to arrange the meeting.”
Anders turned his horse, its hooves scuffling on the hard trail, and headed to the back of the procession. He nodded to Withers, the man driving the wagon, and passed by the clapboard sides. He wheeled his mount around again and pulled into a steady walk beside the creaking wheels.
The man in the back of the wagon was thin and ragged, a wiry beard sprouting from a weak chin. He was pale, blue veins peeking through here and there just below the surface of his white flesh. He lifted sunken eyes from behind wire-rim round glasses and gave Anders a mournful look. Anders shivered and thought it the look of a haunted man.
He opened his mouth, intending to address the man, and the wind picked up. It rattled the bare branches around them and sent leaves skittering across the trail, the sound like claws on wood. The prisoner cringed and raised his hands as if to ward off a blow, the chains that shackled him jingling as he did so. After a moment, when it was clear there was no blow or attack coming, the man lowered his hands and hung his head again.
“You fear the wind, Mister-?” Anders asked.
“Hart. And yes.”
“He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens / And by His power He directed the south wind.” Anders quoted.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Hart asked.
Anders shrugged. “It’s a reminder. God controls the wind. It’s His hand that stirs the laves on the bough, the face of the water. And where there is God, there is nothing to fear.”
Hart lifted his head and looked around him. He stared into the woods for a moment and then turned to Anders. “I’m not sure He’s made it out this way yet, pastor.”
“Why is that, Mr. Hart? You know of course, God is in all things.”
Anders pursed his lips. “You seem to have struggled with this Mr. Hart.” He looked ahead, at the path that wound into the woods and toward their inevitable destination, the gallows. “You have limited time now, sir. Would you like to confess?”
“Confess?” Hart looked at Anders, contempt in his features. “No. But I’ll tell you a story.”
Anders shrugged the look off. “You’re welcome to unburden yourself however makes you comfortable.”
“Aye, maybe. What makes one man comfortable might be mighty uncomfortable for another, though.”
He paused and took a breath, maybe tasting the air for the right moment. When Anders had begun to wonder if he was going to speak, Hart’s voice broke the silence.
“My pappy came here 30 years ago, looking to stake a claim. He was from French stock, though I wouldn’t hold that against him. He built a house about ten miles back – but you know that.”
“What happened to your father?” Anders asked.
Hart shrugged. “Consumption. Got him in the winter of ’56. What the sawbones said, anyway.”
“You didn’t believe him?”
Anders shook his head. “Maybe at first. Maybe a little.” He shrugged. “Maybe it was the sickness that got into him. A sickness, anyway.”
“How do you mean?”
“Doesn’t matter.” He craned his neck over his shoulder, at the path they rode down. “I’m not long for this world.”
“Does that make you afraid?”
Anders looked at him, hard, and considered. “Maybe once. Now, I don’t know. Part of me is going to be glad to quit this Earth.”
“Because of what you’ve done?”
“Wasn’t me, Pastor. I told the sheriff and his men, and the judge, and I’ll tell you – wasn’t me.”
“You mean what.”
“What is the word you’re looking for.”
“Tell me about it, then.”
Anders took in a breath and let it out in a long plume. He hung his head, his hair falling in lank locks over his eyes. He shrunk in on himself. After a minute, he spoke.
“It was cold that night. You know the house is on a hill, in a clearing. Pappy set it there so he could see what was coming, man or beast, or both. The drawback there is that the wind can whip mighty mean ’round the eaves when it’s got its back up.
Maria – my wife – she’s German. Least she was, before. Superstitious as hell. That wind would blow up, and she’d fork her fingers and spit through them. I used to laugh at her for that.
‘Just gettin’ spit on the floor,’ I’d tell her.
The kids though, they’d take their momma serious. You know how it is, little ‘uns and their mothers. They’d follow suit, and fork their fingers and spit too, though being kids, they’d just spit on their hands and end up wiping it on their jumpers.
That night though, she didn’t do it. Can’t say why – maybe she was settling in finally, maybe she was just feeling comfortable. Anyway, that wind blew on, and she was too busy cookin’ up dumplings, or a piece of venison, or summat, and the Devil’s fork never occurred to her. ”
He shook himself and went on.
“I was sitting by the fire. Had an old book my pappy had left – something by one of those pilgrims – you know, God-fearing men, men like you – and my pipe. Never lit it in the house though. Made things stink awful. Anyway, that wind was blowin’, and I hear something coming through the trees, so I put my book down and get up, over to the door. I open it and the wind damn near blows it out of my hands, but I kept a good grip, and I looked out toward the treeline. Sure enough, something’s moving down there – probably a deer or an elk – I can see the antlers, but we got enough meat for now, so I close the door and sit down.
‘What was that?’ Maria asked me.
‘Just the wind,’ I said.
Didn’t think nothin’ else about it until after dinner. Stomach was troubling me, you see. Felt like I was still hungry, but I couldn’t account for it, so I thought Hell, I’ll go get that deer. We could always use the extra after all, and the air will do me good. So, I got my rifle and walked down to the trees, but I couldn’t see a thing.
The wind kicked up, and was howling something fierce, but I thought I’d go a little further. Not a track. Then I heard the door banging in the wind, and thought I’d latched it. I headed back.”
He looked up at Anders, and his face was pale. Tears stood in his eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, like a rabbit caught in a snare. For a moment, Anders thought the man was having a fit. Finally, Hart got a hold of himself and managed to swallow. He heaved a deep sigh.
“Do I gotta go on, sir?”
Anders shook his head, but said gently, “No, son. But it might do your soul some good.”
Hart sniffed and rubbed at his eyes for a moment, then cleared his throat. He went on.
“The house was open when I got back, and there was tracks from the threshold, but they seemed to trail off after a few yards. Smelled – smelled something fierce, too. But goddamn was I hungry by the time I got back.
They was a mess – opened from groin to gullet, but by then, all I could feel was the pain in my stomach, and the sound – my God, it was a roar in my belly. I went from pantry to cupboard to stove, but there weren’t a bite to eat.”
He broke down in sobs. Anders waited for him, gently administering It’s all right, son. When Hart recovered, he went on in a rush, as though he was ready to be out and done with it.
“I buh-buh-bit her. I bit off a big chunk of her thigh, and my God, it tasted so good. And by God, that wind died right down. I don’t know how long I ate on her leg, but when I looked up the first time, some thing was peering in the window, a deer skull atop a wasted body watching and its eyes were pits of fire. The next time, the sheriff and his boys were there.”
His eyes were wide and his pupils pinpoints. One of the horses stepped on a branch, snapping it neatly in two, and Anders started. Hart snapped.
“OH JESUS AND MARY, IT’S HERE IT’S HERE IT’S HERE OH GOD-”
He was cut off as suddenly as he’d begun, the sheriff appearing beside him and fetching him a blow to the side of his head. Hart’s skull rocked to one side, and his eyes went sleepy. He quieted. Bill looked at Anders.
“Pastor. I think you’re done here.”
Anders nodded, and with one last glance at the prisoner, they rode to the front of the line. They rode in silence for some time, the only sounds those of the horses and the wagon.
“Told you he lies. Bastard et his whole family.”
“Did you ever see the tracks he talked about?”
Bill nodded. “Hoofprints. Probably their pony got loose. We found it a day later, by the stream, half-eaten. Probably wolves.”
“You don’t believe in evil, sheriff?”
Bill looked at him. “I do. Just not the kind of mumbo-jumbo you’re talking about. There’s enough evil in a man’s heart. He doesn’t need a boogeyman as an accomplice.”
The rounded a curve on a hill, and the forest opened up. Trees fell away to expose a crossroads. Beside the center of it, a gallows had been erected, tall and skeletal against the gray sky. From behind them, Hart whimpered. They rode until they were beside the killing tree, and dismounted, Bill and Withers pulling Hart from the back of the wagon.
Bill pulled a small black hood from his pocket and pulled it over Hart’s head. Anders got his Bible from his saddlebag and walked the steps of the gallows, to stand by the lever. They led the prisoner up the stairs, his legs watery as he walked. More than once they had to brace his arms to keep him falling down. Soft weeping came from inside the hood.
On the platform, the sheriff looped the noose around Hart’s neck and tightened it, then stood to the side. Anders read from the Bible.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…“ His voice blended into the background as the wind kicked up.
The horses whinnied, and from somewhere in the forest, a branch broke. A dark stain spread across Hart’s trousers, and from inside the hood, he wailed, the words pleading.
“PULL THE LEVER PULL THE LEVER PULL THE-”
There was a creak and then a thump, and the clear snap of Hart’s neck breaking as the trapdoor beneath him opened., the sound mirroring the sound of the branch in the woods. The wind died down, and Anders’ voice carried on the clear air.
“…deliver us from evil.”
Hart’s body swung. Anders closed the book and looked out at the woods. From somewhere in the gloom, light caught a set of bone-white antlers, and he had to remind himself that God was here.