Not what you might be expecting...
|“Yea, though I walk in the valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil...”
I hate funerals. Only thing I hate more than funerals are hangings. Only thing I hate more than funerals or hangings is having a whole townfull of folks thinking the dead man told me where he hid his gold before he was called to Glory.
But that part’s another story. Let’s get back to the funeral.
Well, all the way back to the hanging.
To this day, Flynn and me still do that way too much. Not hangings; I mean making promises before we hear what we’re promising. I don’t know why that is. Flynn says it’s because we’re basically Good, and Good folks can’t imagine anyone – especially their friends – asking them to promise something bad. Which is pretty hard to swallow, even from Flynn, considering some of the company we’ve kept over the years. Me, I tend to think it’s because we’re not used to looking down a road far enough to see the ruts up ahead. Even Flynn, who’s the thinker. I also think it’s because sometimes we get hit over the head with something I like to call the Stupid Bat.
I’m getting off the subject again. Excuse me. I ain’t much of a writer.
Anyway, there was this fellow Paris O’Doole. He asked us to promise him something. Paris was in jail about to be hanged for his part in a bank robbery gone wrong, and the killing of two members of a posse. Sure, Paris, we said. What could he ask us? How hard could it be for us to do?
It turned out to be a lot harder than I ever thought.
The truth is, we’d have stayed for his hanging and his funeral anyway, even if we hadn’t promised him. Not because we like to watch men swing, but because we figure it didn’t hurt a man to know he had friends at a time like that, even if he wasn’t going to need them much longer. But the asking made it like… I don’t know. It felt like it was something important. Something only we could do for Paris. And as bad as we felt about Paris swinging, we felt sort of good that we could do that for him, at least, in the end.
I always thought Paris O’Doole was more than a little loco. Not a bad sort – not mean or nasty. Just off his nut. To start with, Paris was tall and skinny, like a scarecrow. He wore his clothes like a scarecrow too. That don’t make him loco, I know. Just funny-looking. He had this laugh that was like he had to get it all out before somebody turned to him and said, “Paris, that ain’t funny.” His eyes had a skittish look to them. Made me think of a wild bird in a cage. Not a hawk or a buzzard. More like a sparrow. Something helpless.
And you felt like you couldn’t sit down too long when you were around him. Not that he was a rough kind. But he made you nervous, all the same. Like he was an old bottle of nitro packed loose and you didn’t want to stay near for too long. I don’t recall ever having sat down to poker with him. Flynn says he doesn’t, either, and Flynn has played poker with just about everybody.
Flynn told me once that Paris had a memory like nobody else he’d ever known. He could recall things – things like floor plans to banks, and railroad schedules, and payroll schedules, and every horse and all the odds in every race at Jerome Park for whatever season you cared to name. That might be why nobody ever played poker with old Paris, but I think it was because you couldn’t sit still with Paris around, looking at everything with those wild bird eyes of his.
Sorry. It seems like I just can’t get to the point of this. But I feel like I got to say a little about Paris before I get into it, or it won’t make no sense. Or more likely, it’ll make even less sense than it does. You just have to know Paris. And it’s funny, but the longer I sit here and write, the more I think that nobody knew Paris. That was just part of his craziness.
Paris swung about five years ago. That’s a long time. A lot of water under the bridge, as they say. I don’t usually write things out, but this… thing that happened, this thing at Paris’s hanging… Flynn told me one day that I ought to write it out, that maybe that’d let me be at peace with it once and for all.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s just tired of hearing me talk about it. But what the hell; I got nothing to lose, and Flynn don’t steer me wrong… too often.
It was a sunny day. Most summer days in Telluride are. There was a big crowd gathering in the main street of town, where a scaffold had been set up. Some fellows were testing the hanging rope and the trap door with a sack of potatoes. The sound of it was awful. I ain’t the nervous type, but that noise… well, every time they tripped the door and the sack fell through and the rope thwanged taut, I had to loosen the string tie around my collar. And that sack of potatoes just swung there. All that dead weight. Funny, but it made me think of an old rope swing we’d set up when we were kids, Flynn and me, out over a water hole. But there wasn’t any water hole here, and no laughing kids. Just a swinging sack.
Made me real glad we’d never killed anybody, I can tell you. Flynn didn’t say anything, but I saw him swallow hard once or twice.
We didn’t talk the whole time, which isn’t unusual for me, but it was damn near impossible for Flynn. Pretty soon the crowd set up a cheer, and we saw it was because the sheriff and deputies were leading Paris out of the jail.
Paris looked like he hadn’t slept. His hair wasn’t combed, his beard wasn’t trimmed much less shaved, and he sure hadn’t had a bath. I remember thinking it was pretty bad that a man had to go to his Maker in such a state. I also remember thinking that those dead men from the posse probably hadn’t planned to meet their Maker in that state, either. It was a day for thinking.
Paris had a dog collar around his neck and this big, heavy chain lead, as if they thought they were going to have to yank him along that last stretch. But he went quiet, shuffling – well, his ankles were chained, too – guess they thought old Paris was pretty dangerous, still.
Most every time I ever saw Paris, which wasn’t much because he’d never ridden with us, he had a smile on his ugly face. Sure enough, today was no exception. His smile got bigger as the crowd got louder. It reminded me of a politician come to stump, except that Paris couldn’t work a crowd like a snake-oil salesman. All he could do was smile. He even tried to wave, but they had his hands chained together.
Paris O’Doole’s moment of glory.
Damn, I remember thinking. He’s got balls, to walk to his own hanging like he was going to be sworn in as President. It got me to thinking how I’d have felt. How I’d have acted. That was some thinking I’d rather not have done.
Anyway, he made it up the steps they’d built, the chains clinking all the way. He stumbled once. He said something I couldn’t hear, and those that were standing close got a good laugh out of it. It just made me cold to know that he was going to be dead in five more minutes, and swinging at the end of that rope like the sack of potatoes, and there they were laughing, even Paris.
Now, I know most folks don’t have much excitement in their lives, but it still don’t make any sense to me how they can turn a man’s hanging into a country fair: Little babies up on their daddies’ shoulders. Kids playing hide and seek in their mamas’ skirts. Old people leaning on canes. Some boys even threw rocks, until the deputies shooed them away. I’d have liked to take a switch to them, myself. It was a sight.
All of a sudden, a hush fell over the crowd. I looked up to the scaffold to see why. The sheriff read off Paris’s name – Paree, he called him – and the sentence. “…hanged by the neck until you are dead,” he said, reading off the paper, although I knew he knew what it said. I knew it meant he couldn’t look the man in the eye whose life he was about to take. I hated him until I felt this strange feeling come over me, like it was me standing up there next to Paris, wearing that badge, reading that sentence, instead of some stranger. I knew I’d rather be where I was, then, instead of where he was. And I felt sort of sorry for him too. I didn’t want to, but I did. Funny how things you think are black and white can go gray on you.
The sheriff stepped aside to make way for the preacher. The preacher reminded me of an old friend of ours, except he was clean and neat, and a might stouter than the fellow we knew. He opened his Bible, and Paris, along with every man up there and all the folks in the crowd, folded his hands and bowed his head. I bowed mine, too, although I’d never been a praying man. I don’t know what Flynn did. I didn’t look. But I suspect he bowed his head, too.
I think that was when I really felt it. Felt for certain that there was a life up there right now that would be gone in a short space of time. I had a sick feeling, like my breakfast wasn’t sitting right, and I hadn’t eaten much anyway, which was also not like me. I wanted to walk away, to get on my horse and ride and not look back, as if by doing that I could make things stop just the way they were and Paris wouldn’t die, only be standing there on that scaffold until the Second Coming. I shivered, though it was a hot morning.
Well, I shook myself to stop it. I was acting like a kid. What was Paris to me, anyway? A friend, and not a close one at that. Now, for instance, if it’d been Flynn up there – well now, that was some thinking I really didn’t want to do.
I didn’t walk away. I didn’t want to look, either, but I felt that Paris’d be looking for us, for me and Flynn, since he’d asked us special to come. I looked. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The preacher closed his Bible and stepped back, and I knew it was time. Paris knew it, too. You could see it in those wild bird eyes of his. I knew there were little children in the crowd, holding tight to their mamas’ hands. I was ashamed that I wanted a hand to hold right then, myself.
One of the deputies offered Paris a black sack to cover his head. Take it, Paris, I thought. Please take it.
He didn’t. He wasn’t going to make it easy on nobody. The crowd, damn them, cheered him. He smiled, but it was a pale smile. The kind I’ve seen on corpses. A Dead Man’s Smile, his lips sort of pulled back away from his crooked teeth. His wild bird eyes looked all around, and they lighted on me. I froze up at first, feeling like if he died looking at me, he’d be taking some of me away with him, and I wanted to keep all of me right where it was. I fought the stupid feeling and even managed to smile back and give him a little salute.
The look – this is the part I can’t forget – the look in his eyes changed. I saw a frozen pond in those eyes, and a wild bird, and I remembered Paris telling a story one time, a story that, like most of Paris’s stories, had nothing to do with whatever had been going on at the moment.
“I had this duck when I was a kid,” he began, one day while he was cleaning his gun. “The little feller followed me ever’where, like I was his mama. I weren’t allowed to bring him inside the house, a’course. Dunno why; it wa’n’t but a soddy. Anyway, that blamed duck wouldn’t fly south come winter. It stayed near the house and swam in a water hole where the cattle would break through to take a drink. One morning, that duck was settin’ up a squawk, and I went out in my nightshirt to see what was wrong. Figgered it was a bear or something. But it weren’t nothin’ except the duck hisself. He’d got frozen in the pond.”
The way Paris told the story, his bony elbows going every which-way, you could just see this poor duck flapping and squawking. We all thought it was pretty funny.
“I took a rock and tried to break loose all the ice,” Paris went on, laughing right along with us. “But that duck, he was frozen good and tight. He looked at me like he knew I’d get him out, though, so I ran and got my pa. He’d know what to do, all right.”
Our laughing eased up. We wanted to hear what Paris’s pa was going to do. Old Paris could sure tell a story, even one about a stupid duck.
“Well, he got him out,” Paris reported, his eyes losing their laugh. “He went and got his shotgun and killed it. The warm blood ran out over the ice and melted it enough to yank him free.”
Nobody was laughing then.
“They et duck that night for supper,” Paris finished with a little shake of his shaggy head. “My ma and pa. But I didn’t. Never et no duck again, in fact.” Then he laughed like he always did, and looked around at all of us. “What’dya think of that, boys?” he asked. But he was laughing all by himself.
Paris wasn’t on the platform any more. The rope was taut. Spinning. Jerking. I looked down below, where the sack of potatoes had swung a while ago, only there wasn’t a sack of potatoes, there was just Paris O’Doole, dancing in the air, dancing, dancing.
Just when I thought that dance without music was going to go on forever, he stopped. But the rope kept spinning a while, and swinging. Paris’s wild eyes were half-open, but they weren’t looking at me anymore.
I wanted to go. But it wasn’t over. It wasn’t over until the last kid threw the last rock and the last mama led the last child away, and they cut down old Paris and put him in a box.
“Want a drink?”
It was the first Flynn had spoke. His voice was all gravelly, like he had an ague.
I wanted a drink bad. I knew he did too.
“Not yet,” I said. “Not ‘til after.”
Later, after they’d put him in the ground and I’d thrown a handful of dirt down on his pine box, Flynn and me headed back into town to get that drink. I was going to drink to Paris and his duck. Only we got sidetracked.
But that’s another story.