The Cave

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Nine

(One week later)

Covered in a dusting of snow, the gallows stood ready for three days. But the village elders couldn’t decide whether to send for a territorial judge or let Townsend try the case as the justice of the peace.

“No witnesses, nothing to tie Carl to the cave or the bodies, no confession, and no wounds,” Knight told the elders. “I shot him point blank. Townsend, you saw the wounds and the blood. Now, there he sits in shackles, fit as a rattlesnake on a hot day, and laughing. If you send for a territorial judge you might as well release him now.”

The townsmen agreed, but the elders, accustomed to the days of centralized rule from Mexico City, took more convincing. Amado’s pleas, not Knight’s, eventually brought them around.

They held the trial in the tavern. Shackled, Nesbitt hunkered in a dark corner like a rat. Knight had no words, no frame of reference for the beast known as Nesbitt Carl. He beat him only by abandoning all logic and relying on instinct. Now logic and reason were losing badly against Nesbitt Carl.

A railroad bookkeeper with a back-east education represented Nesbitt. The young man correctly stated nothing could tie Carl to the scene of the crime, which Townsend and his party had already destroyed. Carl’s only possible crime was being in Knight’s room, uninvited but unarmed.

Knight knew Nesbitt didn’t play by the rules in the bookkeeper’s back-east law book. They needed a frontier trial, were evidence carried less weight than fear.

Amado beseeched the pueblo chiefs to come and testify, but none did. One sent a messenger to beg the court to appease the demon Nesbitt, lest he devour them all.

“The injun is the only one talking sense!” Nesbitt cackled from his irons. “I hereby absolve the red savages from my terrible vengeance.”

To Knight’s relief, Townsend quickly found Nesbitt Carl guilty of the murders of Sheriff Jackson Wellsby and the Lady Josefita Lucero, as well as twenty six counts of the unlawful death of an indian.

During sentencing, Knight shocked the gallery when he spoke in favor of burning. This statement received Nesbitt’s full attention.

“I’d rather take my chances out there with the savages instead of you ‘civilized men’! Bloody Americans, no better than the French,” Nesbitt protested, visibly shaken.

The bookkeeper stood and tapped his law book. “This, gentlemen, is the U.S. Constitution as well as the territorial charter of New Mexico. It’s enough this is a sham trial, based on superstition and...” he waved his finger at Knight. “...blind fear! My client is right. We are no better than the primitives we’re supposedly here to show the light of reason, law, and Christian love. The legally proscribed form of capital punishment in this territory is death by hanging or firing squad. For all that is right and merciful, at least do this. Or we might as well all live in Texas.”

The bookkeeper carried the day. Nesbitt grinned smugly as they dragged him into the cold sun and onto the gallows in the town square.

In anticipation, a crowd gathered under the bare aspens surrounding the gantry. The fact the disappearances stopped once Knight apprehended Nesbitt didn’t go unnoticed by the villagers.

A gasp went out among the crowd. Villagers crossed themselves with cries of, “El Diablo!” as women turned away. Knight made his way through the spectators to see what the commotion was about.

Nesbitt’s skin darkened and turned purplish-black. It began to split and bleed. Blood trickled from his eyes like perverse tears.

Townsend inched forward. “Nesbitt Carl, you have been found guilty of the murders of Jackson Wellsby and Josefita Lucero. Do you have anything to say before sentence is carried out?”

Nesbitt looked left and right over the crowd. “Knight! Where’s Knight?”

The railroad agent stepped forward.

“Ah, there he is. I have but one request for my new friend.” The crowd fell silent as Nesbitt leaned over as far as his chains allowed, blood and pus dripping onto the freshly cut planks.

“Before I snapped her neck she told me you were coming. Seer of the unseen, she said. The bitch cursed ya, Knight! Cursed ya with old magic, deep magic, and you don’t even know it. So you better bury me deep, old boy. BURY ME DEEP!

Knight stepped back, hand seeking the reassurance of his pistol grip.

A woman screamed and fainted. Trembling, a young priest from the mission stepped forward. “Do you want me.... do...you...want me to read from the Holy Scripture?” he stuttered.

Nesbitt rolled his eyes and grinned. Black blood oozed from between his teeth.

“If it will get that hood on me, you bet your ass, laddie! Why don’t you read Daniel 9:9, that one is always short and entertaining in times like these.”

The priest fumbled though the pages. “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.”

Nesbitt issued a deep, gurgling laugh. “Say, padre, could you bring that a wee closer so I can read it myself? My eyes are a bit watery right now.”

The priest held the Bible closer to Nesbitt, who promptly spit a wad of black juice on its pages.

“Damn you to hell!” the priest recoiled.

“Too late. That forgiveness shit didn’t play too well in my case,” Nesbitt chortled as Townsend placed the hood over his boiling, disfigured face.

“Ahh, that feels so much better!” With a cackle, Nesbitt broke into song.

“Death is master of lord and clown;
Shovel the clay in, tread it down.

CLOSE THE COFFIN, HAMMER IT DOWN!”

Snarling, Townsend yanked the lever and the trapdoor fell away, sending Nesbitt to a sudden jerk three feet above the New Mexico clay. Nesbitt’s feet kicked wildly.

His neck didn’t snap.

Knight had seen enough hangings to know when they would linger. He pulled a Colt and fired one bullet into the hood and one into the abdomen. Nesbitt ceased struggling.

The bookkeeper looked up at the body in horror and disbelief. Knight bumped him as he turned to walk back into the tavern.

“I guess he gets a hanging and a firing squad today,” Knight said. “I figure justice must be plum happy ‘bout that.

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