A cloud of dust roiled up Main Street, kicked into the air by a dozen riders and a freight wagon pulled by two draft horses. The clatter of so many hooves and the whooping of the riders caused heads to pop out of windows and doorways all along the street. Ethan stepped out of Calvin Anspach’s store. George Hawley drove the wagon while a second man held a scattergun on someone in the rear. The ground trembled as the wagon passed. Ethan’s eyebrows rose in disbelief at the sight of the man trussed up in the wagon.
Ethan scurried as fast as he could in the wake of the commotion. Townspeople gathered, eager to hear the news. Hawley’s group stopped at the unofficial center of town, in front of the telegraph office and the tiny cubby from which Newton Chiles produced the weekly newspaper.
Breathless, Ethan joined the circle of onlookers, all now engaged in heated discussion. Ethan turned to one of the shawled women to his right. “Mrs. Kelly, what happened?”
“They caught that Reb under the McAlister barn. Had guns and powder and a whole cache of food. Seems he’s been stealing the countryside blind.”
“Let’s hang ‘im. Murderin’ reb bastard.” Lucas Brady’s fist punched the air. Several in the crowd supported his call for immediate justice.
George Hawley raised his arm and then his voice. “Remember that traveler we found shot on the road a couple months ago? And two of our local boys was dead next to him? Maybe this reb shot all three?”
“I say we hang ’im,” Burt Scoggins chimed in.
Hawley had to play this right. He wanted the town worked up, but he wanted them moving toward the solution that he had been going over in his head since his men had found the reb that morning. “Let’s bring our prisoner up here and see what he has to say.” Three of Hawley’s hired hands muscled Jasper to the boardwalk in front of the telegraph office. “What’s yer name?”
Jasper stared into the crowd.
Hawley punched him in the ear. “I said, what’s yer name.”
“Ya fixin’ to carve it on my tombstone, are ya? Right generous of ya.” Jasper said.
Hawley wound up and punched at him again, but Jasper ducked and the force of Hawley’s follow-through almost caused him to fall off the boardwalk. Several people snickered as Hawley’s face reddened. His eyes sunk into their pits of gristle. “You won’t even get a grave, reb. First they starve you in prison, then they feed you to the pigs.”
“Reckon you know a lot about the habits of pigs, you tub o’guts.”
Someone in the crowd yelled, “Prison? Hell, we should hang ’im.”
Hawley recovered himself. He held up his hand again, signaling for silence. “Nothin’ I’d rather do than hang this murderin’ thief. But we don’t want trouble with the army. They want all stragglers and deserters delivered to them. I do a lot of business with Uncle Sam and I don’t need no trouble. This bag of bones should go to Fredericktowne to the county sheriff. They can turn him over to the army.”
“It’s damn cold, George. Who’s gonna take ’im all that way? Easier to hang ’im.” Several in the crowd examined the gray sky and nodded.
“I’ll take him.” Hawley scanned the crowd. “You there, Billy Anspach. Don’t you go into Fredericktowne for supplies on Thursdays? How about I go with you tomorrow? While you drive, I can keep an eye on the prisoner. That’ll be a lot safer than puttin’ him on a horse.”
Several men made sounds of support. One dissenter said, “I still think we should hang him.”
“Chester, this is an army matter. They’ll send him to a prison that will be worse than hangin’. We hang him, he dies once. In prison, he dies every day.” Looking around the crowd, George Hawley raised his voice. “Are we in agreement on this?”
Scanning the crowd, Ethan didn’t see that many people nodding.
Hawley said, “Okay, then. We’re in agreement.” He called out, “Billy, when you leavin’ tomorrow?”
Ethan didn’t respond, seemingly frozen in place.
“Billy, I said, when you leavin’?”
Not wanting to let the moment pass, Hawley announced, “Alright, that’s settled. We leave tomorrow morning. Early.” Hawley smiled and shouted to his men. “Okay. Let’s haul this trash to the livery stable overnight. You men take shifts watchin’ him.”
As the crown dispersed, Ethan stood trancelike looking at the spot on the boardwalk where Jasper had been.