UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
JOSHUA LANDERS

The Hangman

         Itís the rainy season. Down beneath the city I can hear raindrops scattershot against the ground. I have to keep attention behind me,

Francis Bacon
on the small opening through the rotted wall leading into the maze of tunnels beneath Old Sacramento. Waterís beginning to flow. Rats have already tried to come through the passage but Iíve stomped them away, stuffed a few canvas sacks full of dirt and rocks and stacked them knee high in front of the hole. Thereíll be small streams of mud coming in at first, but if the weather keeps on, Iíll have to move to higher ground.

         The cellar door leading up to what used to be Foolís Gold Saloon opens. Torch light flickers off the faded brick wall next to the stairwell. Thereís a wild bunch up there tonight. Even if the saloon hasnít been open for legal business during the last ten years, itís still the biggest money maker this townís got.

         Whiskey and piss drips through the floor, has been for hours now. I had to move my workstation from the growing puddle of mud. Everybodyís here for the same reason, I know. I can hear their anxious footsteps and voices as if I were standing right among them.

         Tom Shiftlet walks halfway down the stairs. Heís nothing more than shiny boots and pressed jeans.

         ďHarry?Ē he says. ďYou almostóĒ

         Someone whispers behind him, stopping him mid-sentence. More weight buckles the entire staircase.

         ďYeah,Ē I say.

         The whispering stops. The light disappears. Thereís a loud thump against the stairs and something rolls down, settles on the bottom step.

         ďThirty minutes,Ē Shiftlet says, and stomps back up. I never see Tomís face anymore. I never see nobody much. Used to be they were proud of what they wanted done. Now it seems this is the way they want it. No one looks at me full on beforehand.

         When the door shuts Iím left with the unsteady glow of my lantern hanging from a knot on the wall. The constant breath of wind seeping through the tunnels dances the flame.

         ďThirty minutes,Ē I say, and sprawl the last forty years of my life across the work bench. Twenty feet of rope, strips of rawhide for my hands, and a rusted trough to catch whatever stinking fluids might rush out.

         In the shadow by the stairs, the pig Shiftlet rolled down looks green. I know itís not, just looks that way. Itís big, about 200 pounds from my calculations of sight. Bending down to grab its front legs, I know my eyes are one of the few things not yet leaving me.

         I drag it to the edge of the workbench, lift its upper half to the edge of the bench and pry open its mouth. The mouth is still warm, the tongue. Reaching to the wall and grabbing my lantern, I can see the thin slit carved at the base of the animalís neck. The slice is deep, neat. Tomís always been a good slaughterer.

         I set the lantern on the bench, clamp the pigís top and bottom teeth to the wood. This is the only way I figure to get the rope around its neck without too much trouble. So much has changed over the years, itís not like the old days anymore. Back then I used live pigs, sometimes calves when the folks upstairs wanted me to sacrifice a fat sonofabitch. I never asked no questions. I had assistants do that sort of thing, conditions and whatnot. But no longer. Now Iím both the helper and master of ceremonies.

         The hind legs begin slipping along the mud, and I straddle the hog to keep it from slapping flat down to the earth. I reach around its belly and hike the body up. Sharp cackles of hair poke my arms, blood and something yellow seeps from the slit when I bear hug the beast. Amazing we eat these creatures. Even more amazing these people waste a perfectly good dinner to try and better their own survival.

         I pull the rope from the table, keeping the pig steady with my knees. Certain men canít tie a Gallows knot with two good hands and a whore helping them, but I can. Biting onto one end of the rope, I wrap the other behind the bight, lean my face to my hand and use a couple of fingers to pull that end around to form a loop. A few times over and a foot long section looks like a neck of corded knuckles.

         I lift the hogís head up and slide the loop over its snout, along its face. Minding its ears, I yank once on the length of rope and the loop tightens as if made just for this beastís neck. Whoever they drag down in the next twenty minutes or so, the knotíll work the same way.

         The pig weighs more than I thought. I canít lift it a foot off the ground and have to hunch over while carrying it to the gallows. If my back slips out one more time, Iím out of a job. Aging, itís a wonder any of us want to continue living at all.

         Next to the gallows I lay the animal down. The ground is firmer here. With the way the rain sounds, the flow of water beginning to echo through the tunnels, it wonít be for long.

         From the table I grab my rawhide and put it in my pocket. Then I stretch the rope from the pigís neck and step back, eye it from a distance. With the knot, a good eighteen feet remains available. One foot is twelve inches, and unless a ten foot tall man comes down those steps, I should be in business.

         My gallows is simple. Up above, in the main square or down by the waterfront, fancy craftsmen have constructed overhead platforms, legs thick as elephant legs, and three or four trapdoors adding to the shock value. Some say itís mercy, the way men have their lives pulled out from under them. But not me. I think itís just plain insensitive to let a man die without ever knowing when itís going to come.

         Forty years and my construction is solid as ever. What makes it work is the simplicity. An eight foot tall, thick square beam driven deep into the ground. Another beam is attached at the top, forming an upside down L shape from the support. Spikes as long as my forearm secures the wood together. Iíd wager my design against the newest gallows this townís got, and Iíd win too. Mine never has to deal with the constant ship shape talk of the new city dwellers.

         Collecting the rope, I run a length of it into the rattlesnake thin notch carved into the top of the inverted L until it tiger tails off the back of the gallows. Then I stand behind the support beam, straighten my back against the wall. Holding my breath, I stiffen my legs to the ground and pull the rope hand over hand until the hogís head lifts off the ground, followed by its shoulders. Then its rounded body rises and eventually brings with it the back hooves. I breathe through my nose, hold the weight of the animal for thirty seconds. Forty-five. After a few minutes I let go and the pig slaps hard to the ground.

         I do the same thing again and again until the weight becomes manageable. Iíve been doing this for too long to expect that itíll get any easier. But this is what Iíve chosen to do. It may seem queer, but this is what Iím good at. The cellar door opens again. The torchlight. The faded, crumbling look of the bricks. All noise has stopped upstairs. Not so much as a footstep loosens a particle of dust or drip of whiskey. I could hear a rat fart if I didnít take extra lengths to keep them out of my workspace.

         I see the shine of the boots first, then the pressed jeans, and the whole of Shiftlet comes into view. The old sheriffís badge pinned to his shirt catches the flicker of the torchlight, gleams a dull metallic sheen. Before he comes all the way down, he takes off the badge and stuffs it in his shirt pocket.

         His hatís pulled low, and I wouldnít be able to tell if he was looking at me even if he was. But heís not. Tom reaches up and grabs onto a length of chain someone from above tosses down.

         ďStep,Ē he says. The stairs creak. ďStep, step.Ē

         Shiftlet says only the one word until a man stands next to him.

         The manís taller than him even without shoes on. His shirtís untucked and splotched with dried blood. I consider him handsome though I canít see his face under the black, pointed hood they make them wear. I think of all that come before me as good looking. For whatever reason, it makes me believe they mightíve had a good life leading up to this point.

         ďWalk,Ē Shiftlet says. He steps ahead of the man, tugs at the length of the chain wrapped around the manís throat. A few yards away, Shiftlet unlocks the chain and pushes the man to the floor. With the manacles around his ankles, his wrists, the man falls easily.

         ďStay here,Ē Shiftlet says. He points to the ground beneath the swaying noose as if the man can see it. Then Tom hurries away.

         Dozens of people walk down the stairs, stand in the shadows beneath them. Most of their heads are covered with black lace, the thin material hanging down below their noses, cutting off half their faces. Theyíve been wearing these things for years and Iíve never questioned why. Is it because I know them, faces that have grown and aged like mine, children becoming adults and adults becoming old? I donít think so. Itís just some things are better left unexplained.

         ďOkay,Ē Shiftlet says. With two fingers gripping onto the brim of his hat, he nods towards me and mixes in with the crowd. Everybody locks hands and bows their heads. They rock back and forth as one and begin speaking low to themselves.

         I wrap the back tail of the rope around a couple of large nails I hammered into the support post years earlier. Secured to one bent up nail, one down, the rope wonít slip. This makes it easier to not have to restring it along the crossbar again should the man slip out.

         After loosening the noose from the pigís neck, dragging the animal into the opening in the brick wall behind me, I help the chained man to his feet. There must be four or five other pigs somewhere along the tunnels from the previous months, unless the rats have already taken care of them.

         Grabbing the trough off the workbench, I set it in front of him.

         ďNow donít kick this over,Ē I say, sliding the trough against his toes so he knows itís there.

         I take hold of both his shoulders, spinning him a bit so heís directly under the noose. Heís quiet, most are. But heís trembling. He makes me do the same, a quick flutter down the length of my spine.

         ďBack a step,Ē I say. The mask puffs in and out of his mouth, outlining the shape of his lips, the point of his nose. The sides of his shirt and pants are muddied, the length of dirt he was pushed onto roughed up with wetness. He starts whispering to himself. God this, God that. In the past Iíve asked certain people to tell me what theyíre saying, but not anymore. Itís always the same.

         I slip the noose around his neck. His entire body shudders when I tighten it. Someone in the crowd gasps, but theyíre still rocking back and forth. Quicker now.

         Taking position behind the gallows, I unravel the slack from the nails and begin to yank back, slowly, until the rope is tight enough to make the man step backwards. Heís talking louder, but itís just noise against the low chants of the crowd.

         With one hand I take a strip of rawhide out from my pocket, wrap it best as I can around my right hand. I canít afford burns any longer. My skinís become so sensitive, it peels away like an overripe peach.

         My back against the wall, legs stiff and already aching, I pull, hand over hand until his weight snaps the smallest fibers along the rope. The man chokes out a cry, fluid gurgles in his throat. Some of the women under the stairs break hands and hurry up the steps. Dresses are lifted above shins, smooth faces of children buried to bosoms as they escape to the saloon.

         I slide my entire weight down. The ropeís taut as can be, and I tug a bit more to wrap whatís left of the slack around the nails.

         The manís off the ground, toes scraping the dirt. He spins a little, squirms, but the noose holds tight. He begins scraping at his neck like a dog trying to dislodge a tick. Choking sounds scratch out of him. This one wonít be giving up.

         While this is happening, a good size of the group flees upstairs. Only the old timers and Shiftlet stay, waiting.

         I come from behind the gallows, running a hand along the crossbeam to check for weakness. Over a hundred hangings now and itís strong as ever. Could last a hundred more. Pulling the other strip of rawhide from my pocket, I force the manís arms behind his back and tie them together at the wrist. He doesnít have much fight left, but what he has is admirable.

         ďShh,Ē I say, and get in front of him.

         Arms wrapped high around his thighs, I hug him as if heís my brother who has just traveled back from the war twenty years too late. His breath shoots out from the hood in thin bursts of air. His eyes are hard to find, but I can always make the whites out beneath the tiny holes in the fabric. This manís are no different.

         ďItís okay,Ē I say.

         Before I take one last breath, lean into the man and pull down with my entire weight, even before I hear the man take his last ditch effort at life prior to me snapping his neck, I say a few words.

         ďI am going to send you to a better place.Ē

         I jerk down on his legs and he goes motionless. I hold on to him, say the words again. My voice loud enough so only the man can hear.

Joshua Landers work has been published in Cantaraville, Litro, Night Train, and Verbicide magazines, as well as others. He is currently working on finishing several horror and western short stories so he can finally complete his first novel, "Where Spirit Meets Bone."







© 2004-2009 Underground Voices