The One about Not Hanging Men
Out of habit, and being unsure what else to do, I started lunch like I normally would, humming quietly to myself as I went so I could keep my mind from wandering back to things I didn’t want to think about. Newt came back in and sat at the table. I zoned him out as I went about preparing the meal. I wanted to talk to Woodrow, but I knew it wouldn’t get me anymore.
I wanted to ask him why he’d been gone and where he went. Why hadn’t he told Newt or Pea Eye where to he was going? Or leave Needle or Dish, who knew where he went every day during the daylight hours. I wanted to ask Woodrow these questions, but what good would that do? He wasn’t exactly the kind to sit and talk things out, I didn’t think.
When the beans were about halfway done, I looked over to see Newt still at the table, looking towards the fireplace. I slowly sat across from him at the table and he didn’t move. “Newt?” I asked quietly. He didn’t say anything, just deliberately turned to look at me. “Are you alright?” I asked.
He just watched me for a moment. “I should be asking you that. You were in here with four men and after they...” He said, his words getting madder and madder before he faltered. “And I couldn’t protect you.”
His words took a moment to register. I just shook my head. “Let’s not talk about me, alright? Let’s talk about you.”
He shook his head. “Are you alright?” He asked, his small voice full of concern.
I just looked him in the eye and I could see all the worry he’d been holding back, all the fear that the men had hurt me and the realization that he hadn’t been able to protect me. I ducked my head. “I’m sorry.” I said, forcing the words out in a whisper. “I suppose I didn’t realize how much you cared for me.”
He took my face in both his hands, surprising me slightly. “I care more for you then I do for anything else I can even think of. I don’t know what to do, thinking they hurt you like that.”
“I’m sorry, Newt.” I told him, meaning it sincerely.
He nodded. “Us boys know you’ve had it rough. It’s kept me up at night an awful lot lately. If I was to marry you, how I could do right by you.” He told me, watching my expression. “And I ain’t quite figured it out, but I suppose I don’t gotta know it all. Now, I just know that however I do it, I’ve got to do right by you or I won’t ever forgive myself.”
I shook my head. “No, don’t go thinkin’ like that. Nobody’s marrying anybody.” I told him, standing up to walk to the window.
Newt was silent for a long time. “Why not?”
I almost laughed, but a tear fell from my eye. “Newt. You saw what they did to me. No man wants a broken woman.” I said, watching Pea Eye tie a hangman’s knot just outside of the barn.
“That ain’t true. I want ya, if you’ll have me.” Newt said, standing from his chair. I could see his reflection in the glass and I ducked my head.
“Let’s not talk about anything rash. Alright? I’m just gonna finish up supper. You can go help the boys if you’d like.” I told him.
“You want me to mix you some biscuits?” He offered.
“If you’d like to, then yes please. If you want to go help the Captain, that’s fine too.” I told him. I didn’t want to push him away, but at the same time, I didn’t want him too close.
“Captain’s done this well without me so far. Suppose another few minutes won’t do no harm.” He told me, pulling out the ingredients and mixing up a batch of biscuits. I went and put the Dutch oven on the fire. “Why’s your dress in the fire?” He asked, sounding concerned.
“I couldn’t stand to look at it.” I told him, working the coals around the cast pot.
He fell silent, working at the biscuits until we heard a shot fired. Newt and I both paused, then we rushed to the door and out to the barn. The men had been tied to the fence surrounding the horse corral. Now, the Indian sat, hunched over at an awkward angle, blood flowing from his chest.
“Captain. What happened?” Newt asked, looking as shocked as I felt.
I had been scared one of them broke free, stole a gun and was shooting up our men. But one of ours had shot them.
“Well, he kept on talking about how he…” Woodrow paused, seeing I was behind Newt’s shoulder. Woodrow cleared his throat. “Dish didn’t think hanging was appropriate.”
Dish looked mad enough to spit as he put his gun back in his holster. “Well he ain’t never gonna hurt nobody again.” He said, looking me in the eye and gave his hat a rough tip before he went back into the barn.
I didn’t think seeing the three men again would invoke such a powerful reaction in me, but as soon as I looked over at them, I stepped back away from them.
The Mexican smiled. “I bet none of these cowboys have ever felt how soft your skin is below your skirt.”
I took hold of Newt’s arm before he moved forward. He just looked at me confused. “It’s not worth messing up your hand. Please.”
Newt looked at me for a long moment before he nodded and I let go of his arm.
“I bet you’d scream for him.” The dirty white man said before the other starting making rude noises.
A piece of wood laid near my foot, a scrap from the barn. It was about as big as my arm, maybe a little thicker. Before Newt could make another move, I picked it up and carried it over to them. The one stopped making noises and looked alarmed as I landed the wood across his face.
He groaned loudly, making twice the amount of noise he had previously.
“You can’t do that!” The dirty white man yelled, right before I hit him with the board too.
He wouldn’t have gotten such a beating, except he had opened his mouth. I hit him three more times before I took a breath. “You took the longest. Do you remember? I think you should get the worst of it.” I said as I heaved once more.
His face was red and bloody. He had a black eye, his lip was swollen, and I could see several wood pieces embedded in his cheek.
The Mexican looked scared when my eyes fell to him. He started begging, but it fell on deaf ears. I whipped him and the board fell out of my hand.
I turned to see Newt’s hand on my shoulder and six pairs of concerned eyes watching me carefully. “I know it won’t change anything. But it made me feel better.” I said, looking back over my handy work.
Call nodded. “I suppose that’s all that matters then. Pea, you almost done with them hang knots?”
“Yes sir. I was halfway through the fourth when Dish shot ‘im. I’m done now, Captain.” Pea said.
“Alright. Needle, you find a tree?” Woodrow asked, looking over at him.
“Yes sir. Strong enough for the three of them.” Needle said.
“The biscuits should be about ready. How about lunch first?” I asked, feeling a little lighter than I had before. I had been burdened, but it wasn’t something that would drag around behind me like an anchor. I could handle this thing the same way I’d handled it before.
The boys watched me. “I suppose hanging men can wait til after food.” Woodrow said. “Suppose I’ll walk with you, if you have no objections.”
“Never, Captain.” I said, taking his elbow.
“The boys and I are mighty worried about you.” Woodrow said.
I nodded. “I’m thankful. But you don’t got to worry none.”
“Forgive me if I don’t put my trust in that statement, ma’am.” He told me, hanging back from the boys a little.
“Captain.” I said, stopping and turning to look at him. “This is the first time I’ve had more than one man at me. But it’s not the first time a man has been at me. These men just broke me a little too much for my own good. I’ll get along just fine and I’ll watch after your boys the same as I have.”
The Captain stood in front of me for a moment. “Have you given Newt an answer?”
I couldn’t help but smile a little sadly. “A wife isn’t a wife if she’s been ravaged by three men different from her husband. Newt’s done fine this long without me and I expect him to get along fine without me still.” I said, shaking my head as I walked the last few steps to the cabin and pushed open the door.
The men had started eating already by the time I sat down and dished my plate. I couldn’t look at them though. I knew the look I’d see when I did. The ‘poor you, now you’re a broken toy’ look. I’d gotten it before and I’m sure I’d get it again.
When the men were done, I went about cleaning up and doing dishes. Dish and Needle asked if I wanted to come with them. I declined. I wasn’t fond of seeing death, even if it came to someone that deserved it. Newt came into the cabin after a bit with Needle.
“We’re gonna bury them over the hill. Dish and Pea’ll stay to help you with anything, if you need it.” Newt said, being a great deal more cordial then I’d have expected.
I nodded. “Alright. Thank you, Newt. Be safe, all of you.”
They nodded, leaving the cabin.
I kind of just stood there for a moment before I went over to the window to see the wagon rolling under the Hat Creek sign. Dish and Pea stood near each other in front of the barn, watching the wagon creep up the hill. When Dish looked over and saw me at the window, he tipped his hat before he continued back to his work.
I picked up the wash basin and headed down to the lake to wash dishes. Pea Eye went back to shoeing horses and Dish helped him. When I finished washing the plates from lunch, Dish ran over and offered to help carry the tub up the hill. I didn’t really want help, but I knew it’d offend Dish if I declined his offer, so we walked up the hill side by side and into the house.
When Dish set the tub on the counter, he kind of hesitated. “Is everything alright, Dish?” I asked, worried that he might have caught a fever or something.
“Yes. Yes, ma’am. I’m just…” He said, looking me briefly in the eyes before his gaze happened upon the wood flooring. “I’m awful concerned about you, ma’am. If you want help ‘round the cabin or somethin’, all you gotta do is ask. I ain’t too proud to help with dishes or supper.”
I smiled at him a little bit. “Mr. Boggett, you’re a gentleman in the truest form of the word.” I said, setting my hand on his arm so that he’d look at me. “But I’ve never met a man that can beat me bad enough that I can’t make dinner. I wouldn’t turn down help with the dishes later this evening, though.”
He nodded, still looking worried. “Ma’am, if I may,” He started, obviously trying to tread lightly. “You shouldn’t be so hard on Newt. You mean the world to the boy. And it’s plain you don’t have eyes for any of us, other than him.”
I watched him for a moment before I nodded. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” I said, clearing my throat from the lump that began to form. “Don’t know what I did to make him so crazy for me.” I said with a nervous laugh.
Dish gave a chuckle. “Newt’s just like that ma’am. He woulda fallen heads over spurs if you’d never said a word to him.”
I nodded after a moment. “I suppose that to be true.” I said.
“Do you need any help with things in here?” Dish asked sincerely.
“I wouldn’t mind if you brought in a handful of firewood. I’ve had a chill clinging to my skin since early this morning.” I told him.
He nodded and brought in three armfuls of wood before he returned to the barn to help Pea Eye with the horses.
I milled around the house until I saw the wagon coming back over the hill a few hours later. I wasn’t sure how long it’d take to dig a grave, let alone three, by hand. I stepped out onto the porch when they crossed the Hat Creek Cattle Co. sign. Newt sat in the wagon seat, but he looked deep in thought. Needle had to tell him to stop the horses and pull the buggy break.
He then went about unhooking the horses and returning them to the stable while Needle, Dish and Jasper put the wagon back in its place.
“Ma’am.” Woodrow said from his horse with a tip of his hat.
“Captain. Is Newt alright? He looks troubled.” I said, glancing over at him. His moves were sluggish, like he was somewhere else.
“Suppose he’ll be fine. Of course, I can’t say for sure.” He said, looking over at the boy.
“What happened?” I asked, looking back at Call.
“Suppose he’ll tell you if he’d like.” The Captain said before he headed to the barn to put his horse up.
I returned to the house and as the sun descended from the sky and slowly turned the world orange, I got to work at dinner. I knew I should be grieving or something, but if I stopped working for more than five or ten minutes, memories danced behind my eyes that would haunt me.
So I continued working. I swept the floor four times, dusted everything in the cabin with the rag I had three times, stoked the fire to chase the chill that laid over my skin like liquid plastic. I mixed a batch of biscuits and added them to the cast iron cook pot.
When they were a golden brown, I pulled them out of the fire and went out to the barn to tell the Captain.
“Ma’am. You know what’s wrong with Newt?” Needle asked. He raised his arm and I turned to see Newt sitting on the hill near the lake.
“Well, no, Needle. I don’t. I thought it was because of something that happened while you were digging graves.” I told him.
He shook his head. “Not that I could tell, ma’am.”
I told the Captain to go ahead and eat without me and I went to check on Newt. He just sat there, not moving, just staring out at the lake. “Newt?” I asked, coming to sit down next to him. He made no move to show he’d heard me. “Newt?” I asked again.
He twitched, but didn’t turn to look at me. “Captain’s my pa.” Were the only words he said.
I blinked for a moment. “The Captain is your dad?” I repeated.
He nodded. “That’s what he says anyway. Says I can have his name if I want it.”
“Newt Call isn’t quite as catchy as Newt Dobbs.” I said, leaning into him.
But the punch line of my joke sailed over his head. “It ain’t funny.”
I cleared my throat. “No, no it’s not. I’m sorry.” He just sat there, staring ahead out at the lake. He kept taking deep breathes. “Do you want the captain as a pa?” I asked.
He took a moment before he replied. “Suppose it don’t matter. Him and Gus were the only pa’s I ever knew anyway, even if I didn’t know the Captain was my real pa.”
“If it doesn’t matter, why are you sitting out here all by your lonesome?” I asked.
He was quiet so long I didn’t think he’d heard me. “What do you think I should do?” He asked.
I was slightly taken back. How was I supposed to know what to do? I’d known my dad until the day he’d died. “I guess if you want the Captain as your real dad, you’ll take his name. And I guess if you don’t know what to do just yet, that’s ok too.”
He nodded, looking over at me for the first time since I’d sat down. “Guess I don’t gotta figure it out now.”
I shook my head. “Nah. You got forever to figure it out.”
He shook his head. “Not forever. Just til you’ll have me.”
I gave him a small smile and ducked my head. “You’re one in a million, Newt.”
He smirked. “Can’t rightly marry if I don’t know my real last name.”
“I suppose your real last name is whatever you want it to be.” I told him, standing with a bit of a struggle. My body ached and groaned in protest for my movements. “Dinner’s ready, so I expect if you want food, we should get back.”
He hopped up like he was sitting on springs and walked me back to the cabin. The boys were nearly finished by the time we sat down, so by the time we got our food and started eating, they were done and sitting out on the porch.
“I owe you another dress.” Newt informed me out the blue.
“I don’t think you owe me anything.” I told him.
He shook his head at me. “You’re down to two again.”
I shrugged. “Not usually the worst of my concerns.”
We fell into silence until the meal was done and I went about collecting dirty plates. Newt slipped out to talk to the other boys and was replaced with Dish.
“You said I could help with dishes.” He said, answering my questioning look.
I nodded. “Yeah, alright.” I told him and he picked up the wash basin and carried it outside.
When we reached the lake, Dish sat in the grass while I scrubbed the plates. “Is this the life you wanted?” He asked after we’d been sitting there for quite a while.
I couldn’t help but smile. “No, definitely not. That’s not to say it’s a bad life. But it’s not the one I always pictured for myself.”
“What did you picture?” He asked.
I thought about it and shrugged. “Whenever I thought about my future, I always saw myself alone. I never had too many friends and I never had a man worth really caring for.”
He nodded. “I think every woman ought to have a man to care for. Me; I’ve always been a cowboy. Ain’t never known anythin’ different.”
“Despite the dancing lessons, of course.” I said.
He smiled. “My mom said they’d come in handy one day. I’ve only ever danced with three ladies.”
“You never wanted to be something besides a cowboy? Not a lawyer or a banker or a rich man.” I asked.
“Suppose it’d be nice to be a rich man, but I never saw me bein’ one.” He said, smacking the toes of his boots together. I finished up the dishes and painfully stood up. “Ma’am, are you alright?” He asked, his arm around my middle to support me.
I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve just been out of sorts since earlier.” I said with a nervous chuckle. “They messed me up good.”
He watched me cautiously as he helped me up the hill. “Maybe it’d be best if you laid down.” He told me as we came around the corner of the house.
My head began to swim at his words and my stomach did flips. “Maybe… that’s a good…” I said, trying to get the words out, but they jumbled as they came out. My knees buckled and Dish didn’t have time to catch me. I saw Newt running towards me before my eyes closed. When I could pry my eyes open again, I was on the wood floor of the cabin, in front of the fire.
Newt sat next to me, setting a wet cloth on my forehead. I tried to grab his hand, but I was seeing double. I was scared. I didn’t know what was causing the dizziness or the double vision or the pain, but I wanted it to go away.But I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore and let them slip closed, making my headache vanish.