The Hanging Tree
The Hanging Tree
Jonathan sat back on his heels and blew out his breath in frustration. Mama had been the one with the magic touch when it came to lighting fires. She could make that smoke curl up with nothing but a few dry leaves, a twig and some grass. She’d tried to teach him, but he just didn’t have the knack for it.
You’ll get it soon enough, she had promised him. Just keep practicing.
A cold wind stirred the branches of the ancient, gnarled oak above him, and he squinted at the setting sun. He was going to need the warmth of a fire tonight.
He hunched back over his small pile of twigs and grasses, and started rubbing the stick back and forth between his palms, trying to ignore the blisters he could feeling coming up.
“You might try pulling that wad of grass back, son,” a voice behind him said. “Let your wood breathe a bit, so it can start to burn.”
Jonathan jumped at the sound, dropping his stick. He looked over his shoulder and saw the silhouette of a short, fat man standing a few feet behind him. He knew he should stand up to show respect, but he was hungry and tired and instead he just stared at him, silent.
“Ah,” he said after a few moments of uncertain silence had passed, “allow me to introduce myself. I am Horace Watford. I travel around these parts buying and selling and generally providing the brave souls who’ve settled out here with entertaining exotica to brighten their otherwise workaday lives.” He spoke like someone reciting lines in a play, Jonathan thought, though he’d only seen one play, and that when he was only seven years old and the family had gone to Sacramento. It was the only time he’d ever traveled so far, or spent so much time off the farm. Until now.
“I’m Jonathan,” he said quietly, still crouched over his attempted fire.
“Jonathan my boy, pleased to meet you!” Horace Watford exclaimed, and in three strides was standing over him and beaming at him. “I see you are attempting to bring light and warmth to your camp on this cold evening.” He, too, hunkered down and peered at what Jonathan had collected and arranged for the purposes of fire making. “While my fingers are not as nimble as yours, perhaps I may be of service in offering advice for getting things started?”
Jonathan wasn’t sure if the man was making fun of him, talking the way he did: too many words, too formal. What adult talked to a twelve year old boy that way? But he could feel it getting colder, and so he nodded agreement.
“Ah, yes,” Horace rubbed his hands together vigorously. “Now if you’ll push back that wad of grass, my lad, and resume your frictional stick spinning, I believe—ah!” He drew in his breath and sat back on his heels. “There you have it!”
Smoke was twisting up from the small pieces of wood, and Jonathan grinned as he fed the dry grass to the little spark, watching it grow until he could add larger wood chips and, eventually, some of the larger pieces he’d gathered.
Horace Watford watched him work, a benevolent smile wreathing his round face. When the fire was sturdy enough for Jonathan to sit back on his heels and let it burn, Horace fixed him with a stern look and said, “My boy, you appear to be on your own out here.”
“Yes sir.” Jonathan looked away for a moment, than back into his fire.
“I see.” The older man sucked on his bottom lip for a moment. “Well, as we find ourselves in a similar solitary predicament, I believe our wisest course would be to join forces and provide each other with camaraderie for a time.”
Jonathan wrinkled his brow and squinted at Horace. “Sir?”
“Why not set up camp together is what I’m saying!” Horace bellowed a laugh that made Jonathan smile, in spite of the oddness of the man, and his discomfort with strangers. As if he could read his mind, he continued, “After sharing a camp fire, no two people can remain strangers---‘prairie kin’ I’ve heard it called, the bond that forms in such situations.” He lowered himself into a comfortable position across from Jonathan, and gestured for Jonathan to do the same.
Horace Watford had spun tales of his travels and the strange and wondrous things he’d seen for nearly an hour before the sound of Jonathan’s stomach rumbling interrupted.
“That is my cue, I believe, to suggest we pause to dine,” he said with a slight incline of his head.
Horace smiled patiently. “Have you any supper with you?”
Jonathan’s face fell into a quiet kind of misery. “Only some jerky. I et all the rest, sir. It’s the last I’ve got.” He turned away and rummaged through a sack stowed safely away from the fire, turning back with a handful of stringy meat that looked tough enough to stand in for rope, should the need arise.
“Alas,” Horace place a hand on his chest and rolled his eyes to the starry sky dramatically, “jerked beef upsets my constitution with a greater ferocity than I can tolerate.” He sighed deeply, then looked at his young companion and winked. “Go ahead and finish it yourself, my boy. I have,” he chuckled and slapped his belly, “plenty stored up for nights like this.”
Not wishing to be disrespectful, but relieved all the same, Jonathan smiled and began to eat the last of his dried beef.
As he gnawed at the meager dinner, the peddler continued his talking, sometimes reminiscing of his own childhood, often speculating and commenting on matters that Jonathan could not comprehend, but supposed had to do with a world in which well-traveled men with money and education would feel at home. Jonathan found himself able to forget, for a time, that he was alone in the world, that this was the last of his food, that he didn’t know how much further it was to the next town or if he’d find any work there. Horace talked so much that Jonathan didn’t think even one time of the three graves he’d had to dig, or the wretched sickness that had preceded his doing so. The sound of flies buzzing in the hot afternoon sunshine, the smell of unwashed bedding, the hopelessness of releasing the livestock so they could forage for themselves—none of it returned to him that night as he scooted closer to the fire, listening to Mr. Watford’s stories. As his eyelids grew heavy, the last, glassy look of his baby sister’s gaze, lifeless, meaningless, desolate, did not float behind them, nor torment his dreams.
He awoke because it was light, well past dawn, and the last embers of his fire were no longer enough to keep the chill from him. For just a moment he couldn’t remember where he was, and he wondered why Mama hadn’t woken him earlier to go milk the cow.
With shuddering force it all came back. He gasped and sat up, looking around.
Mr. Horace Watford was gone, not a trace of him anywhere, not even foot prints leading away from the dusty fireside where they’d camped all night.
Shivering—from memory, from cold, from hunger—Jonathan rose, kicked dirt over the last of the fire’s coals, hefted his sack, and set out on his westward path toward hope.
He saw the buildings on the horizon after only an hour of walking, and quickened his pace. By noon he was walking down the main street, passing men and women on horses, a wagon, people he could see inside buildings, through the windows of various businesses. He recalled that Mr. Watford had advised him to stop in at the general store and ask there if they mightn’t need an extra hand. He’d said that the man who ran it was kind, and would help him find work if he didn’t need the help himself. Jonathan saw the sign at the far end of the main street, “Goodman’s General Store.” Hoping that the name was a good sign, he mounted the steps and opened the door.
Inside it was quiet and warm. There were two customers walking among the goods, and one at the counter being helped by a man with long whiskers and bright eyes.
“You bring it right back here if it doesn’t meet your needs, Mrs. Wells,” he said. “I’ll find you something that will do what you need, one way or the other.”
“Thank you, Mr. Goodman,” the woman took a package wrapped in brown paper from the counter and tucked it under her arm. “Please give my best to Mrs. Goodman.”
They nodded at each other, and she left. There was the tinkle of a little bell when she opened the door, and Jonathan smiled when he heard it. It reminded him of a bell they’d had at home, one Mama kept in a special place on the mantel over the fireplace, and she’d ring it on special days—Christmas, Easter, birthdays—and tell the story of how it was brought over by her grandfather from the old country, his prized possession, and always used to mark important days in their family.
The smile faded from his face and the joy fell away from him as fast as the memory came, and it was his quiet grief that got Mr. Goodman’s attention.
“Can I help you, son?” He was leaning across the counter top, peering at Jonathan with a kindness that nearly made him unable to answer. At last he managed.
“Yes sir. I’m looking for work, sir,” he stared down at his shoes as he spoke to avoid seeing the gentleness that made him feel he might fall apart right there, in front of strangers, in a public place.
“Work?” The man stood up straight and folded his arms. “Shouldn’t you be in school instead?”
Jonathan shook his head from side to side. “I’m from yonder,” he waved eastward, toward the open lands he’d traversed alone, back toward the abandoned farm and the three lonely graves, the flies and the empty barn and the past. “I’ve got to find my way now, sir,” was all he could think of to explain his situation.
“I see,” Mr. Goodman stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Why’d you stop in here? Have you shop work experience?”
“No sir,” Jonathan shook his head again. “But I was advised by a Mr. Watford that you might have a job for someone like myself,” and here he looked up hopefully, “and if not, you might be able to help me find work elsewhere in town.”
The pale and staring countenance of Mr. Goodman made Jonathan think he’d offended him, and he quickly continued. “I’m sorry to have troubled you, sir,” he took three steps toward the door and began to reach for the handle.
Mr. Goodman was there first. “You’re not going anywhere, son,” he said in a quiet, but not angry, voice. Jonathan looked up at him hopefully. “I perceive that you have been on the road a while, and could use a place to rest and gather yourself together.” He nodded toward the back corner of the room. “In the back I have a small closet with a cot, and you’d be welcome to stop there for a while. As it happens, I expect a large shipment tomorrow, and could use some help with it. In return, I’ll see that you’re fed, and the cot is yours as long as you stay on.” He squinted down at Jonathan and put a hand on his shoulder. “Will this arrangement suit you?”
Jonathan felt his legs go weak with relief. “Yes sir,” he stuttered. “It’s very good of you sir.” He followed Mr. Goodman across the large store and back to the door in the corner, behind which was a short hallway that ended in a kind of large storage closet, where indeed there was a cot. “Mr. Watford said you were kind to young folk, sir, and I’m grateful.”
Mr. Goodman stood in the doorway of the closet and silently watched Jonathan place his bag under the bed. “Where did you meet Mr. Watford?” He asked.
“It was last night,” Jonathan told him, sitting on the cot and feeling more tired than he could ever remember feeling, even after the long days helping Papa during spring planting, or that time when a blizzard snowed them in and they had to spend hours digging a tunnel to the barn so they could reach the livestock. Papa had been so angry, because he said there weren’t supposed to be blizzards in California.
“Near here?” Mr. Goodman prompted the boy gently.
“Half a day’s walk. I stopped for the night under a great big oak tree, and he found me there, helped me with my campfire, and stayed for the night.”
Mr. Goodman nodded gravely, his eyes unfocused, his mouth frowning slightly. Then he shook his head and smiled down at Jonathan.
“You take a little rest after your long walk, son, then come on out and I’ll show you how things work in the store. We’ll have supper at 6:00. My wife will welcome a fresh face at the table.”
Jonathan lay back gratefully on the cot, falling asleep even as his head touched the soft pallet.
Mr. Goodman left the door ajar and returned to his front counter, where two people were waiting. The first bought a few items, paid and left swiftly. The second was Francois DuTot, an old friend of John Goodman’s.
“Did I hear that boy say that Watford sent him?” DuTot leaned close to his old friend.
“Do you think it was our Watford?”
John Goodman just looked levelly at him. “What else am I to think?” He said after a silence.
DuTot whistled a long, low whistle and shook his head. “This is what, the third time?”
“Fourth by my count.”
“Why does he do it?” DuTot asked loudly enough that Goodman gestured for him to hush. “Why do you suppose he don’t just stay dead?”
“That’s more than I can try to answer,” said John Goodman, and he told Francois DuTot how much he owed for the hammer and nails and bag of flour he’d come for, accepted his money, and wished him good day.
He knew that DuTot would go to the saloon that night and spread word that the peddler’s ghost had struck again. They’d tell and retell the story of how the peddler had come to town ten years ago, and how right about that time a local man’s family had been murdered in their sleep. He came screaming into town, crying that they’d been attacked, blood on his clothes, and he said it was the peddler, trying to rob them while they slept, who’d done it. As the man was a local and the peddler was not, judgement went against him, and he was hung outside of town, though he protested his innocence to the last.
John had not been comfortable with the entire thing at the time, and was even less so when the man whose family had been killed was caught trying to rob another family nearby, threatening them at knifepoint, only six months later. It was sheer luck that the eldest boy had been visiting the outhouse when this evil man entered, and so he was able to surprise him from behind, knock the knife out of his hand, and save his family. The would-be thief had got away, and no one ever saw him again, but the same could not be said for the innocent peddler who’d been hung for another man’s crimes.
Every now and then a stranger would come into town, and it’d come out that he’d seen the peddler—and always near the hanging tree. Once a young child whose family was new to the community had wandered off and gotten lost. The parents and able-bodied adults of the town searched three days and nights for him with no result; but on the fourth day he toddled back into town, and in his childish way he explained that he’d been playing with a fat man who sold things, and it was he who told him to go back home and showed him the way.
John Goodman believed that the peddler wanted to prove to the townsfolk that he had been innocent, and was doing it by helping them when he could. He especially seemed to want to aid the young, and John remembered with some discomfort the sickened shock on the peddler’s face when he’d been accused of viciously murdering those children.
But there was no sense discussing it with Francois. He was a good man, and a good friend, but also something of a gossip. Let him go and sift through it all with the others who liked to drink and speculate about such things, and then go and spin tall tales about them. John Goodman would take care of this boy, give him the safety and comfort he so clearly needed. It was a hard life, and this could be a hard country. If the peddler sent the boy to him there must be a reason. Whether or not he understood them, John intended to honor the wishes of the ghost of Horace Watford.
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