Photo by Matthew Lancaster on Unsplash
Sheriff H.W. Walsh bore a faraway look as he stood on the platform behind the gallows and waited for his unofficially adopted son, James Singleton, to die.
The whole scene was oddly dysfunctional, and eerie inefficiency and clumsiness hung about the whole affair like a latrine stench. As if anything that could go wrong had a malicious inclination to do so. The executioner tossed the thick hemp-threaded rope over the oak gallows beam creaking a few times in the wind above them. When the hefty splay of the rope tumbled over into the executioner’s waiting hands, he began to work the knot, audibly sniffling beneath his mask.
The executioner’s absence of crow’s feet and the fact that he didn’t even know how to tie a slip knot meant it was a very strong possibility that the man was young, which allowed him to infer that it was even more likely James knew him from before. The tonal pattern he used had also triggered a blurred, unformed memory of a bar-like room with the constant din of chatter, guffaws, and chinking glasses or mugs, which probably meant it was at a bar or some such place, and the only distinct part of it was a different version of James, a genuinely joyful iteration still gloriously innocent, exchanging enthusiastic hand clasps and cheerful banter. Perhaps there was a blurred reflection of that hangman's face somewhere in that brain fog.
After the sad specter fumbled with the rope in awkward frustration for a spell, he finally muttered to the primly outfitted officials, leather strips from their bolos swaying in the building wind of the approaching storm. Besides Walsh, Henry Harlow, the county prosecutor, and Judge Al Blair, the judge who sentenced the condemned man, were watching on the platform, looking at the executioner with consternation as he explained how he had not tied such a noose before; Blair uttered—almost spat—a Gal damn under his breath at lacquered planks below his feet. The executioner’s reddened eyes tipped downward in shame as his hands stretched in front of him, palms skyward with the large, uncoiled rope in one, making him look like a penitent in supplication before a painted crucifix, not just asking for someone to literally take over, but for some heavenly body to intervene.
Walsh thought that maybe he should be crying too. If he were anyone else in the eyes of the public than the man with the perpetually shining county badge, responsible for looking after prisoners and protecting them until their duly appointed state-sanctioned sentence was to be carried out, it might have been understood, even expected. Walsh had sheltered James from an unruly, vengeful populace for the last four months at his personal cabin on the dusty, obscure outskirts of the town. This was to stop the unruly mob from hanging James on the day he was arrested. He would have died that day had the wild cluster of enraged civilians outside his tiny jail stormed in and dangled him from the nearest tree. But Walsh had often wondered since: which day was the better day to die? Was there such a notion: a time of death preferable than others? Surely there were better ways to die, but a time? For James, there was this assigned day, this designated day, conveniently arranged for the condemned by an old man in wavy black fabric pontificating from a podium four months earlier. But then James could have died the day before Walsh first came to know the way the young man’s kindness of manners, the endearing way he devoured books in Walsh’s modest library even despite the limited time he had in which to use it, the breadth of his enormous but still raw, inarticulate wit, the soft yearnings he muttered in his sleep for his ardent love, Jenny, or about how he forgave his mother for leaving him.
Walsh thought with guilt: if he had let the mob have James that day, would he have spared himself his own suffering, the constant gulping in his throat, a surging ache that tickled the corners of his eyes, yellow phlegm bulging from his nostrils—only a weak thread of his will serving as the dam blocking the emotional surge? It was difficult for him to maintain the decorum expected of a sheriff during the execution of a convicted criminal when every orifice in his face wanted to burst. Suddenly, James himself sauntered over to Bradley, smiling so widely it almost seemed a kind of mocking joy, disarming the officials in their wind-flapping suits. The audience in front of the gallows whispered to one another about how outrageously beaming the walking dead man was.
James took the rope from the executioner and said, “I’ve tied 'em all my life, sir. Might as well tie the one that sends me to Hell too, I reckon.” James expertly tied the knot within a few seconds, like he’d done it many times before. He flashed his crooked beige grin to everyone around him as if he’d had the ivory smile of a stage actor. Walsh thought it must have seemed to the audience that James was hiding some secret joke. In the countenance he wore just before his death, he only sensed the wisdom beyond the young man's years he'd seen so many times before at his cabin.
James continued flashing his stained yellow teeth at the man in the hood in an amiable manner. All of James’s friends would swear in front of fourteen similar judges that he had been so pacifistic he even gave up hunting, and the townspeople still wouldn’t believe it. They would swear he just wasn’t capable of the crime he was condemned to die for, but the community was still convinced James couldn’t be that different from his irresponsible family members, and it wasn’t fourteen other judges; it was Al Blair, the same Al Blair who met with Harlow, James’s prosecutor, every night at the Diamond Belle saloon to escape their women and wet their throats with whatever fine Eastern whiskey they settled upon that day.
James had been secretly seeing Harlow’s teenage daughter, Jenny, despite their vastly different social classes, and Al Blair and the prosecutor were drinking buddies. The man James was accused of killing, Michael Glanton, was also a popular young man; he worked for Henry Harlow as a legal assistant during his summer break from Austin. Walsh wasn’t a man inclined to conspiracies, but he couldn’t ignore them when they made too much sense.
James tied the noose himself with an earnest jocularity that prompted the audience—who came here to indulge in an absent-minded afternoon amusement, like attending an outdoor orchestra or picnic— to pause for a moment of contemplation, Walsh thought. Their foreheads furrowed, indicating the intellectual sweat they must have been accumulating in their skulls, adding to the copious amounts of summer sweat already bedewing their well-tanned South Texas hides. Their mouths were slightly agape as if they wanted to say something about the strange moment to the air or God or anyone else who would listen, or a directive agency behind existence itself for the more secular and ask it to carefully consider why such a discrepancy had arisen, which so flagrantly contradicted the understanding late nineteenth century Americans had of psychology and the human drive to survive. Some probably considered James to be a more honorable man by virtue of his willingness to tie the knot that would lead to death, but Walsh knew some others decided James tied the knot so expertly that they were suspicious—that he must have committed his own fine share of impromptu hangings of undeserving souls out on the frontier, and that he deserved to take the plunge himself all the more. Such were the unsophisticated cogitations of the masses, who didn't like to admit they enjoyed seeing others suffer. For them, James's suffering was divinely sanctioned; they reveled in his pain as a confirmation of their Christian status, demonstrating their support for state-enacted justice; they were not like the atavistic audiences who demanded blood in gladiatorial pits, Walsh thought they were thinking. Above all, they would concoct perceptions that enabled them to continue thinking themselves in beatific ways. The initial excitement at the imminent death of the hated convict, Walsh thought, had transformed into a heightened sense of confusion and self-questioning—they had expected to witness clean, wholesome, state-sanctioned justice at this "event," but now they wondered if they would instead see something merely tragic instead: a man's public suicide.
It resulted in a parody of justice, even though the result was the same.
Earlier that morning, Walsh had woke early to butcher his sheep. On his way to the bent hovel, he noticed James's face staring through the window, strangely alert for a young man accustomed to sleeping late, his eyes wide and intense as he gazed through the dust-rimmed pane as if he were striking a pose in a light-brown picture frame. Dawn was just breaking, and pink-orange clouds spread out from a blood-orange burn just above the horizon like some hellish fire heralding another day of stifling Texas summer heat. Even though James had slept for the past few days, Walsh told James when he awoke that the boy was only escaping. He was entranced by sweet dreams of an alternate reality, and he wanted to go back and hide in them. Today, Walsh himself believed the boy finally understood that the fleeting fancies that dreams provided only continued if life itself did—that they would not be there to comfort him after he was hanged from the gallows in a town square.
Walsh thought that maybe the boy realized that if this was indeed the last day of his own existence, then he would goddamn exist. There will be no more hiding—from Jenny's controlling and powerful father, from life in dreams, or from anything else. Walsh hoped James would watch the dawn of the day he was appointed to die on by a governmental body prideful enough to think it had the ability to decree such things and still yet appreciate the terrible glory of this world he was given the sentience to glimpse in a twenty-two-year sliver of time. He hoped the boy might feel gratitude for the mere fact that he got to glimpse the horrifying splendor of this world in the first place; that he got to become nature contemplating itself.
Walsh loaded a double-barrel .410 shotgun near the sheep pen shack. As soon as he swung open the door, he was surrounded by an affectionate congregation of fluffy clouds with legs, echoing their strange staccato bleats. The lambs looked up at him with their black oval pupils with walnut rims, huddling comfortably around his legs, affectionately prodding their noses into Walsh’s calf muscles every once in a while, like big, loyal poodles. They had been kept in their pen overnight unfed, with only a small pile of straw and a few buckets of water so he could keep their meat clean after butchering.
“Oh, God damn it,” Walsh said to them. "Don't make this too hard for me now.” He attempted to maintain distance from thinking of the sheep meat he had to deliver to the Beeville butcher shop as the remnants of animals he loved. Instead, they were a series of products, objects, a product of his land, the source of his supplementary income to his paltry government coin.
A day earlier, he’d recalled a conversation with Maisie, an old barmaid who flirted with men much younger than herself and was beloved for it. She knew his vexations as his whiskey scorched down his gullet while a deputy watched James back at the cabin. As the only autodidacts in town, they made fast friends. He’d pointed to a satchel of books he’d taken for her to read as part of an exchange agreement they’d kept up.
“There’s an old adage,” she’d said. “When the lamb cries in the wilderness, sometimes the mother comes for it and other times the wolf. But, out in the wild, often the mother is the wolf. Everything from the momma bear to the primate has been known to eat their young, but I sure as all hell wouldn’t want to be in their position.”
“And it is a truth as old as time that in order for others to live peacefully, some things need to die.” He knew he’d rationalized James’ delivery to the gallows badly as if it were a rule all living beings adhere to.
“In order for something to live, something has to die, and this is the guilt felt by every being who continues to live? That sort of thing?” she’d responded skeptically.
“Well. There is a modicum of truth in that notion,” he said, pointing to the dusty shot glass to demand another pour, as if he were trying to numb the thought.
“Now what kind of service is rendered to civilization by that boy’s death?” she asked, pouring more of the caramel liquid into the small tumbler.
He chuckled, admitting his defeat. “I’m not making any sense, am I?”
“No sir,” she said. “You damn well know you’re not.”
He looked beyond her, his gaze boring into a painting that depicted hunters in the snow. “In one of my more impulsive moments I’d briefly considered loading James and sufficient supplies in my wagon instead of taking him to the town square, abandoning my cabin and my occupation, and then living the furtive life as a fugitive myself with that young man.”
“There is no and,” he said, wincing as he threw back another inebriating potion into his throat. “When I remembered my duty to law and order, how I’m a sort of town counselor and confidant people have come to rely on instead of this rarer capacity in which I serve as an admittedly cruel arm of state-sanctioned violence, I nearly slapped myself in the forehead, and after a lifetime of practice, I’ve been able to transition between the two roles more easily than most people.”
“Huh,” she said. “And what would make you more content? Keeping this job I know you despise or going off with a young man you’ve come to think of as a so—” She gulped at the last syllable and silenced herself, treading more carefully. He glanced up at her slowly, tilting his furrowed forehead her way and tightening his lips and bulging his deep green eyes.
“Now, you damn well know he isn’t my dead son. My family’s gone and they aren’t coming back.”
“I know that,” she said. “But I’ve also just about gathered what would make you happy over the years, and the goddamn happiest I’ve seen your poor tattered soul in a long time is when you relay all the things you’ve taught that boy and the conversations you’ve had with him. Your cabin is filled with all those cluttered bookshelves with those cracked, worn spines, the damn pages ripped from the enthusiasm with which you read ‘em. You’ve the soul of a teacher. You’re no damn sheriff anyway and you know it.”
He looked suddenly frail, wrinkled ten years past his time, a look of sad defeat in his eyes.
“Thanks for the drinks,” he said as he clanked his open palm on the bar and a couple coins on the counter and hobbled off his stool, his energy flagging as he creaked across the wood panels to his waiting Appaloosa, Agatha.
Walsh was more educated than many lawyers in Bee County were, he admitted to himself. He’d read Aristotle, absorbing his syllogistic structures and his propositions about the rational and the irrational, and Locke, with his epistemological insight on experience through the senses as the only way for a mind to accumulate knowledge of reality, cutting away the airy abstractions. He knew what he saw and experienced in that cabin, and he knew that the boy wasn’t guilty. He thought a lot about the illogic in the law he defended. Those words that were written by old men in Austin. That’s what saved Walsh from the burden of a lonely consternation, a vexatious disconnect between the person he was supposed to become at noon on that future day and the person he was to become: his protector and feeder and provider of company. There was a proper way to kill and that was by decree of the state of Texas, not by the will of some unruly mob. This was so only because the former meant order and the latter meant chaos, so the learned Austin lawmakers decreed, and it was as simple as that. Even though it really wasn’t. Walsh knew James could see it on the older man’s face: the constant doubt making him sigh what James must have thought of as his long, exhausted old man sighs and the way he wore his grimaces as he looked thoughtfully out onto horizons for answers, his contemplative silhouette framed by the setting sun as he thought about past regrets and a lonely future. Walsh tried to learn to accept his solo journey to the grave since it was unlikely to change, as he thought of himself as too old to find a new woman or sire a new child. But he began to wonder if anyone could learn to accept such a state in any condition, which ran contrary to their own atavistic programming.
Living with someone who was incarcerated for four months altered a person’s notions about loneliness, Walsh observed, to the point where he wondered how he could bear it again. Conversations with James became opportunities to dispense paternalistic insights and feel useful—putting the Bible or an insightful philosophical book on his pillow, making a show of praying just before dinner even though it evoked confusion in those who visited Walsh in the past, as these people never knew him as a particularly Christian man. The truth was that Walsh didn’t know why he did it either. It was like he was just pretending to adopt faith for a time so he could pass its solidity of tradition on to James, as if he might be needing an ancient rubric of moral guidance for where he was heading, just in case. Hell was probably a construct too, he thought, designed by the powerful along with the law. The only place James and the other supposed criminals would be sent would be the reddish-brown Texas earth and consumed by worms and only imaginarily escorted to the hell that existed in the imaginations of white, Christian heads at the same time.
Sheriff H.W. Walsh had killed men with a flick of his wrist at his gun side hip. However, he was also the kind of man who preternaturally sensed a confused face in need of aid or direction on the dusty roads of Bee County and wouldn’t hesitate to benevolently point that same gunslinging wrist in the direction they were seeking, sans revolver. All those around him at any given juncture except the sheep that adored him were uncertain what he was supposed to be at any given time. Walsh knew this and lived with his contradictions more comfortably than most. He gradually took to feeding James more elaborate meals that the sheriff couldn’t afford, made sure he always had clean water gathered from the well pump and reminded the “boy” to bathe. He dispensed a few trite Bible quotes and what he knew were simplistic ideas about the way the world came to be as if James were any other twenty-two-year-old, his whole life ahead of him, the conviction and wisdom in those ancient letters once etched on animal skins something James could use to help ground him, as if preparing the young man for the rest of his life and not for his four remaining months.
But Walsh, despite his Aristotle and his Locke, had also come to believe that there was no such thing as logic ever since he transported James to his cabin just so he wouldn’t die before he was appointed to die, no stability when it came to divining facts about the world and using them to shape legal and moral principles, and so he had given his volumes of Locke and Aristotle and Bacon to Maisie. He kept his volume of The Common Law by Oliver Wendell Holmes because of its provision that criminal law is ultimately only dressed in the language of morality and instead mostly functions as random dictates from powerful men of a certain color and class and that this is its only basis for so altering the course of a man’s natural life. It became his Bible for the random chaos he knew the next day would bring.
The sheep continued to mill around him. When he brought James into the town square at noon on this day, he would in essence be adhering to another kind of distorted logic: aiding in the death of an innocent man so a certain segment of civilization could experience the illusion of comfort and safety.
Both the mother and the wolf.
After James’s sentencing, a crowd of townsfolk, their snarling orange faces alighted by torches like they were in the fevered excitement of chasing some storybook monster and purging the aberration from God’s good green earth, gathered outside the small city jail where James was initially housed with an array of firearms, eager for swifter justice. They yelled their angered declarations at James and Walsh while they were ensconced inside the jail—Walsh at his desk holding a shotgun in his lap, the front door barricaded, and James’s constantly-shifting eyes framed between the jail cell’s iron bars—and Walsh had been mostly unconcerned until one man came close to the door and threatened to tear the flimsy wooden structure down, which, he surmised, they could have easily done. Luckily, a company of Pinkertons arrived at the back of the small jail. There were three of them in the coach, dressed in the Pinkerton detective agency’s crimson vests and blue overcoats with black bowler caps. Walsh handed the one who opened the door a sack of silver trinkets he’d collected from former inmates who never reclaimed them, and he begged them to escort himself and the boy to his ranch, where they could hide until the legally approved time of James’s death in four months.
The Pinkertons were on their way to the Texas Ranger’s office up in Austin to gain intel on a union “fixin’ to riot,” as an older detective with silver tufts shooting out of his bowler and curling around his ears declared. As they made the journey to Walsh's ranch, a younger Pinkerton named Boone was intrigued by this wayward sheriff’s mission to hide from those who wanted his prisoner dead. The older one then started talking about how the word “hide” was used as a term not just for skin, but for literal land support in medieval Britain, to estimate the amount of land it would take to support a single household, which all the Pinkertons found hilarious for some reason.
“So’s next time I skin me a fox,” said Boone, “I’ll own me a piece ‘a land too! Hoo wee!”
Walsh half-smiled with an upturned right lip in gently mocking scorn that appeared to be only mild amusement. Just as the coach arrived, he turned to the handcuffed James. “So…Welcome to my hide, apparently,” he’d said, “where we can hide from those devils in Beeville.” He grinned at him, rather proud at his pun. Then he leaned close to James and said in a whisper, “But, unfortunately, not these ones too as now they know where to find me."
Walsh’s remote log cabin was three miles outside of Beeville, and he had done a very good job of keeping its location a secret. Those that wanted to raid the prison had scant knowledge of it.
At first, during the trial, Walsh didn’t know whether James was indeed guilty or simply being blamed for a murder because the county prosecutor’s daughter, Jenny, was in love with him. He also knew the Singleton family from which James claimed inheritance was a family of ill-repute, prone to fights and drunkenness and petty crimes, as Walsh had arrested some of them. Yet, they didn’t even have the infamous reputation of the outlaw families that inspired fear. They were just nobodies and drunks, and those that weren’t no longer resided in Bee County.
Besides this ripe atmosphere for conspiracy, Walsh heard numerous times from multiple sources that the young man James was supposed to have killed, Henry Glanton, was a former school chum—one who typically socialized with the more educated youth in the town, but nevertheless always maintained an amicable relationship with James because of his homespun intellect and uplifiting sense of humor, especially in inebriated states, and thus formed a contrast to the more formal, stiff, and bookish Glanton. Besides the fact that Glanton was also considered a suitor for Jenny Harlow’s affections, there was no other motive for the deed. Harlow Senior, the county prosecutor, was not hesitant to mention this fact during the court proceedings. The idea of Glanton and Jenny's union was understood by Jenny as more of a dream match concocted in her father’s cigar-smogged courtroom office by the Harlow and Glanton patriarchs. Considering the evidence, the only reasonable conclusion Walsh could come to was that James did not kill Henry. There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime, and the only eyewitnesses that were easily manufactured or coerced were summoned to the stand. The fact that James was discovered near the scene of the crime and the dubious witness testimonials were the only circumstantial tatters of evidence connecting him to the deed.
Walsh’s belief in James’s innocence was further concretized in Walsh's mind when he discovered that James couldn’t even kill a hog or a sheep the entire time he lived with him. Inspired and distraught by the injustice, the old lawman spent his nights squinting over legal documents by candlelight, reviewing James's case. He brought satchels and law books he borrowed from the courthouse into the cabin, diligently crinkling the yellowed pages, then thumbing through them more carelessly as time diminished. Since he had rudimentary legal knowledge because of his duties in law enforcement, he consulted with Herbert Clifton, the lawyer appointed to defend James. He helped Clifton with the motion for appeal. However, the lower court’s decision was affirmed by the higher court due to the certitude and the number of supposed witnesses at the scene. The Texas Supreme Court could, however, hear proof of outright corruption in a subsequent appeal, so he worked on this secretly so as not to lose his job, as Harlow and Blair had keenly attuned, gossip-seeking ears that would certainly hear about his involvement. As he corresponded with Clifton and others, he used humorous pseudonyms such as Jeremiah Hyde and Henrich Zugfahrt to share what he believed was useful insight, but for all he knew, might have been obvious, inconsequential yammerings of a man who yearned to reach greater intellectual heights than he was suited to grasp.
One day, James had asked about a ratty, broken, old cradle he spied in the cabin cellar crawlspace. He was helping the older man haul out a few tools, but Walsh only looked away and pretended to sneeze when James mentioned it. Walsh thought he didn’t fake it very well, and James could sense it was actually a way to hide a choked-back sob when he was reminded of the cradle’s existence, so then Walsh said the cradle was here when he bought the place. James, however, did not press it, even though Walsh could sense he was curious, that he probably learned from Jenny about his long-dead family members and then sought ought ways of drawing out his pain, but Walsh had dammed it in a contained corner of his mind.
Walsh sometimes admitted to himself that he could have been delusional, that James wouldn’t die, after all. There’d be some way to stop it. He just hadn't thought of it yet. So Walsh also pushed Greek and Norse mythological tomes in front of him, and James dutifully but slowly read, having been trained by his mother when he was young, and then lately growing more acquainted with the act after giving it up for a time in his later youth. James was a slow reader but retained a rough, uneducated form of speech that made old Walsh alternately wrinkle his face or raise a bushy eyebrow in approval. James hid his nose in books when he was awake, but he would hide even more in dreams.
Walsh told James he thought the young man was capable of becoming a gentleman if he applied himself to the art of conversation. He told him the point was that, if he was to die, he should die with some dignity, and sometimes when he said that, it seemed like James was content to always be perceived as an outlaw, he wanted the title to apply to him as a form of infamy and a masculine interest in a reputation for hardness, to cultivate the illusion nothing could hurt him. Though, Walsh asserted, James did not have the callous, dead-eyed stare of the killers the old sheriff had scrutinized innumerable times before, and that mattered. Indeed, Walsh noted, anytime butchering had to be done he’d refuse to partake and retreat to hide in the cabin, even though James would help Walsh eagerly with any other chores. He believed he didn’t kill the young legal assistant; maybe, just maybe, Jenny’s father wanted to use the opportunity to see him dead, to stamp out an annoying inconvenience his daughter couldn't possibly deign to marry.
James's most abiding adoration for Walsh, when he finally embraced the old man as a surrogate father, came when he sent Jenny word to slink to his cabin in the dead of night, and the two lovers could visit in secret. For Jenny, it was a respite from the community that wanted to conjure up her shame every time they saw her on the street. They sat on the hay bales under piles of animal hides that were stacked next to the sheep hovel and watched the clear Texas sky sparkling with those flecks of frozen snowflakes that reminded Walsh of his frigid Midwestern travels; both of their inscrutable designs telling him of the ultimate insignificance of human affairs like corrupt courts of law and the significance of another warm body’s touch in such a cold, cold world. The older man left them to their warm exchanges which were soft, mostly indistinguishable murmurs coming through his windowpanes as he watched the firepit and tended to a volume of The Count of Monte Cristo, entertaining fantasies of a much less-onerous escape than the one Dumas accomplished in the novel if his jailer were to aid him, and a quest for vengeance against Henry Harlow and Judge Blair for his wrongful imprisonment and punishment.
James decided to open up to Walsh after his kind gesture. The young man had indeed been baptized as a child, even if he hadn’t been seen in any Beeville church since his itinerant, restless father, a cavalryman, charged North under a youthful lieutenant to chase off some Comanche in 1874; who, despite his Christian pretensions and eagerness to bring young James along to stare at the pulpit, was not too welcome in the town after the aforementioned incident in which he sawed off a man’s ear in the local watering hole. His mother had nearly died of dysentery when he was six. When she recovered, it was as if she realized she didn’t want to be saddled with a child and a man she never loved, and, while she was still able to live, she decided she wanted to make a new life in Houston, well away from the disreputable family she had married into.
James had been primarily raised by his father’s friend, Frank Childers, a local leatherworker who was something of a craftsman philosopher, noted for keeping detailed journals fueled by speculations as to human nature and divine creation in the mode of Spinoza, and he exposed young James to the rudiments of reading and writing. Childers himself, however, decided to leave for parts back East when James turned eighteen, leaving in the dead of night without saying goodbye, and no one really knew why. Speculation ran rampant, of course, that Childers was the first of many to notice the darker side of this unruly, rebellious teenager, but Walsh himself questioned this, observing that every teenager was unruly and rebellious. Childers, he thought, left because he wanted to be exposed to more intellectually refined societies in Eastern cities. Thus, all the adult caretakers in James’ life had been temporary and mostly apathetic, but out of all of them, Walsh, the most temporary of them all, had oddly seemed the most sincere in his desire to teach the young man how to be a part of the world that had already forsaken him and, if he was to die, to die with pride.
The town rumor about James—and the story the prosecutor had disseminated at every opportunity right around the time he had begun to visit his daughter—had always been that James had dualistic natures in him, while he could, he’d said, “present himself as a kind, amiable, young man eager to ruffle a kid’s hair or greet young women with bows and kisses on their hands,” but that “he also harbored a penchant for bloodlust and could virtually transform into a completely distinct identity that would murder and steal and decide to rob a bank within a moment’s notice due to his genetic legacy.”
That rumor proliferated among the power hierarchy in Beeville because of the Singleton family’s legacy of violence and criminal activity, and once the rumor had been formed, it cemented. Because of the lips of power that condemned him and their persuasive skills, anyone in Beeville got the impression that James was just like the rest of his family.
In court, Jenny’s father and her lover’s prosecutor said James “was like that new book out by the man who wrote Treasure Island. . . of which I ashamedly do not know the name.” He beamed in a self-deprecating way, and the jury and audience laughed at this.
“Regardless,” Henry Harlow continued, “the evil side of this friendly looking boy, the James others knew as amiable, well-spoken, polite . . . that this benevolent and charitable boy could be choked out of him entirely in an unforeseen frenzy of violence . . . but it is indeed possible,” he said.
“Indeed, we all once thought the same of the young man’s father until a certain barfight induced the man . . . and I hesitate to mention it, so I forewarn the ladies in this proceeding of the shocking material they are about to absorb but, nevertheless, I feel I must recall it for the sake of veracity . . . to knock another individual to the floor and then cut off the man’s ear, and then he went off to join the army and came back dangling his Injun scalps with pride.” The jury and the audience had uttered a collective groan of disgust, and the women had uttered horrified, spooked cries that seemed precursors to fainting spells. “It is indeed the young man’s genetic destiny to turn into a rage-filled monster like the scientist in that aforementioned esteemed English narrative,” Harlow continued, “but he only needed a family legacy and not some fantastic potion or concoction with which to perform such a horrid feat. The science of Lombroso bears my theory out. James here bears the genetic features of his deficient, morally flawed ancestors.” He then proceeded to point out the defective physical features on the boy’s face that supposedly confirmed his murderous attribute and proceeded to explain the concept of the “criminaloid”—the criminal that uses a morally upright facade to conceal and conduct criminal activities, ignoring the fact that Lombroso stated that the criminaloid often had standing and social influence in a society, and James had had no such standing his entire life.
Walsh was suddenly jarred back into the present moment with the sheep clustered around his feet when he heard a pounding of hooves out on the road in front of the cabin. The man looked like a barely discernible phantom clonking on his steed amid a great tornado of tanned dust, hollering in exuberance something mostly incomprehensible except for the word noon. The sheriff lifted the shotgun at him by impulse and then realized it was useless to threaten a billowing effulgence of sun-lit road dust. People weren’t supposed to know where he lived, so this was mildly concerning, but he also figured it was probably too late for that fact to matter anyway. He turned his attention back to the sheep.
Walsh herded the lambs into their roofed pen, shutting the bleating, hungry creatures in their pens so they wouldn’t panic. This left just one of the lambs in the small feeding lot. He put a tin pan filled with grass and forbs in front of the bleating cotton-ball as it gnawed away at the greenery with a queer bellow of something that sounded like sheep language for gratitude. Walsh allowed the lamb a minute to enjoy the slop that must have been heavenly to him, as he thought proper, and then he lifted the small shotgun barrel to its forehead and pulled the trigger, spewing little pink organelles of brain into its lovely dinner. Walsh's eyes did not flinch. They never did. To his surprise, the boy was still there, watching. Walsh thought James might be thinking about noon and how he himself would die, and he also wondered if it wouldn’t be easier if Walsh himself could just make the boy a steaming bowl of eggs and bacon and lamb steak and then fire a single shot after he had at least a little bit of a chance to wolf some of it down. There would be a kind of mercy and graciousness in that kind of death absent from being strung from the gallows by his neck in front of a hissing crowd. Being shot like a happy lamb in the midst of dinner, suddenly slammed into black silence, sparing James the awareness that he was dying and at whose hand—that might have been kind, if kindness was a word that could apply to such a thing. Knowing when you would die bore a cruelty without equal, precisely because one would have to know when the last emotion he would experience would come and then to choose it wisely and deliberately in the midst of a surging panic at the impending unknown and a helpless rage at the person that decided when to drop him through the floor.
Walsh saw that James didn’t stir from that window until Walsh had killed and skinned the last one. Their bloody hides were draped on the wooden fence, and their crimson daubings gleamed from the organ-pink undersides in the sunlight, like pieces of meat on a smoking rack, clouds of flies circling around the crimson pools like the color of that earlier dawn sky. Walsh washed them all in a metal washtub. James, Walsh thought, continued to watch this cold, methodical procession of life unfold in all its bittersweet glory, on this day that his own life would expire. Walsh himself thought again of all the ways the sheep and other animals were used to improve human society, past and present, how the animals' sacrifice was worth it, and he blocked out all the memories of those morning feedings and the sweet animal pet-like gestures of interspecies love.
Yes. Walsh was convinced James was still staring out that window because he was wondering how he himself could do this. How he could murder so calmly, procedurally, with a steady hand and an emotional template cemented on his face that never changed despite every spurt of blood that might have flown onto it, no matter whether it was man or animal. Walsh thought about the duality of man again; how maybe, as loathe as he was to admit it, a part of what Jenny’s father said was partly true. Maybe Walsh himself was the one who harbored the Hyde Harlow spoke of but couldn't name; for Walsh, everyone in the police had that tendency, but the act of violence was merely a response to some higher moral command. He had no problem with violence that was intended to help a victim in clear need of it or if a crime was clearly morally condemnable and if a death, whether human or animal, would benefit the rest of mankind. The dead sheep kept people warm, they served as exterior reinforcement for native shelters, and they served as decorations. They could even serve as art.
But these same kinds of assumptions about use, how a dead violent man was of use to society’s preservation in the same way as a sheep skin, fed the town's obsession with James's death, and it was fueled by an ingrained impulse endemic to imperfect human brains: they took mere seconds to determine the guilty from the innocent, mostly for reasons that had nothing to do with the crime itself. It could be that the justice system, the system devised to impute the kind of necessary impartiality the human brain wasn't capable of, was itself an imperfect and corrupted manifestation of that impulse. An institution overridden by human psychology; he had witnessed, for instance, a tendency for judges to give tougher sentences to defendants before lunch rather than after.
An hour later, after a quiet bacon and coffee breakfast, they both waited for James’s probate lawyer to arrive. Walsh had met him before on several occasions, usually to solidify the will of a dying prisoner. It was prematurely darkening outside due to a coming storm, and the confused cicadas that normally only chirruped at sunset started their rhythmic pulsing in precise cycles of low-to-high volume. Walsh sat and sharpened his butchering knives, fresh from cleaning, and James seemed to be staring at the hypnotically violent shrick shrick shrick of the knives against the whetting stone as they listened to the cicada songs. Wind whistles from unseen cracks in the varnished wood whined through and they could hear the walls slightly bend and creak after a strong gust.
Walsh didn’t need to draw his gun when he heard the peculiar limping gait of Crimshaw’s old Appaloosa huff up and sputter as Crimshaw tied her to the hitching post outside the cabin.
Crimshaw walked straight in without knocking, as if he knew it’d be a peculiar time to do so.
“’Morning, Sherriff,” he said, taking off his wide-brimmed hat and dumping the water that had gathered there from the light rain. “Jim.”
“’Mornin’, Elijah,” Walsh said. “Coffee?”
“No, thank you. Had enough already to last me until next week, I expect.”
Crimshaw slung a leather handbag off his shoulder. He was a tall, gaunt man in his forties, balding with a curly horseshoe popping out of the sides of his head. He had prominent cheekbones but sunken cheeks and some sharply defined bags under his eyes that made him look prematurely old and sad but glad of it, as if he were possessed of some obscure wisdom that he knew no one else could possess. Walsh thought him inherently trustworthy for this reason, as if he were bound to be an honorable judge that would grace the bench with a patient wisdom that was all-too needed in determining the stakes with which he would be charged—the weight of lives. Crimshaw was best described by something Clifton had once said to him: a man with eyes to see the world for what it truly is learns to accept its blows without wishing he never had to endure them. He sat down at the small table across from James and took out an inkwell and some paper from the satchel.
“Now, why in the hell does the boy even need a will, Elijah?” Walsh asked, a little testily.
“Well,” Crimshaw said with serenity as he dipped the pen into the inkwell, “I suppose I never wish to presume. A man has a right to leave any property that may be of some value to whomever he wishes. And Jim has told me plenty of times that he has retained a few of his father’s possessions. Aside from that—and this could just be the stuffy influence of my legal education in Williamsburg—I think in a more abstract way of the will as a way of speaking to the world one’s leaving behind. And I suppose every man has the right to do that.”
Walsh grunted, but James nodded enthusiastically. “I wanta leave one. I thought a lot about this. There’s lotta sense in it.”
“Certainly,” Crimshaw said, looking at the young man with a slightly upturned brow, surprised at his eagerness. “I’d think it would be some comfort to both of us older men when we ourselves arrive at that time.” He smiled at Walsh, and Crimshaw suddenly stopped, realizing he was advertising future services at an inappropriate time.
“Both of us? I’d a thought that law school would’a struck the fear of death into you the moment you walked out of those gates for the West,” Walsh said. “You mean to say you don’t even have a will yet?”
“No, of course I have a will,” Crimshaw said, amused. “And I’m an old bachelor with no one to leave anything to with the exception, I suppose, of some nieces and nephews I’ve never even met back in Pennsylvania. But yes, even I have a will. And you oughta consider it too, as no one chooses when we die.”
As if realizing what he said, Walsh observed Crimshaw swallowing hard and tugging at his collar.
“Except in the present circumstance, of course,” Walsh said.
Crimshaw cleared his throat, ignoring the comment. “Of course. Now then,” Crimshaw said. “Let’s catalogue your valuables and bequests . . .”
“No need,” James interrupted. “‘Makin’ this simple. Everything, and I mean every stinkin’ last goddamn thing that I own goes to Jenny.”
“James,” Crimshaw said. “Now, you can certainly leave whatever property you wish to whomever you wish. But Miss Harlow has quite clearly expressed her desire to have nothing to do with you, and I’d hate for all your property—
“That’s her parents talkin’ through her,” James said. “I can leave whatever I want to whoever I want. No one else has no say. And Walsh here can vouch for me when I say she’ll gladly take it.”
Walsh, nursing a coffee mug in silence with pursed lips on the rim, slowly nodded.
“You certainly can. All I’m asking you to consider is whether the person you wish to leave it to also wishes to receive it. These are essentially gifts. The person you leave it to has the option whether to receive them, and thereby do what they wish with them. And I’d hate to see all of your property simply go to auction . . .”
“She ain’t a minor, if that’s your thinkin.’ Her parents have no say in the matter, and they’re making her stay silent about our relationship in public.”
“I’ve always said I believe you. It’s just that if Jenny’s parents can make her say these things in public that she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with you in the first place, then how sure are you they won’t continue to have influence over Jenny regarding this, even if she is now eighteen?”
“Fine. Then write this out for me, will you?”
“If Jenny don’t get my property for whatever reason, I want it all to go to Boggus.”
“That’s certainly possible.”
“And I want to make another gift to Boggus.”
Crimshaw nodded for him to continue. James took out a small, folded sheet of paper from the table and read from it. “If my belongins’ aren’t given properly to Jenny, I want my friend Wayne Boggus to have my things. And then I want to make a special gif. I want the skin taken from my back and made into two nice drums after my hangin’, one of the drums will stay with Boggus and the other to old man Harlow with the followin’ words written on it.” He passed the sheet of paper to Crimshaw.
Crimshaw, eyes wide as ink blots on white porcelain, took the paper and read what turned out to be the words of the Jury on the day James was sentenced: “We, the Jury, find the defendant, James E. Singleton, guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged in the Indictment, and assess the penalty of death.”
Both older men sat in stunned silence.
“What in the hell are you on about, son?” Walsh said. Since he’d read the court case, he knew that was the actual sentence, verbatim.
“Harlow’s the one that’s drinkin’ buddies with Judge Al Blair. He’s the one who got me killed, and don’t you two pretend to not know it. Well . . . why shouldn’t he have my hide as well? Isn’t that how it works? My dad left me some Injun scalps from the ones he killed. Why ain’t this different? Why can’t my hide be his trophy? And ain’t it sending a message? Those Meed-eval folks used to make books outta hides, to write their laws. Why kaint my hide be used for it?”
“The . . . indecorousness of this aside, son . . . this won’t happen. No one is going to skin you. It’s Unchristian. Inhuman. Whatever point you’re trying to make here . . . I’m afraid it won’t be made, and the will scoffed at as a futile rebellious scrap of indecency,” Crimshaw said.
“It ain’t even about that. It ain’t like I think he’s gonna actually take my skin. It’s like you said. My will is like the last bit of stuff I gotta say to the world ‘fore I leave it, and I damn well got plenty to say, even as I didn’t get the chance to say ‘em. It’s them words that are the gift, I ‘spose. And that simply says he ought to take my hide like any deer or Injun . . .” he paused and looked at Walsh meaningfully, “or lamb you kill.
“And then they’d pridefully hoist ‘em up,” he continued. “Like, Lookee what I done kilt. I’ve got bigger balls ‘n you and such.”
Walsh looked at him contemplatively, a finger scratching his auburn beard, his eyes downturned. He didn’t appear as disturbed as Crimshaw anymore. He knew James had a cunning mind that worked underneath his poor grammar and speech, and but for his lack of education, the young man could have been anything he wanted to be. There was an art to his project that Crimshaw was missing.
“You want to make a legacy with your body before you die,” Walsh said, hoarsely. “Almost like art. So you don’t really die. So they can’t really claim the uh . . . victory therein.”
James beamed at him with the thrill of a child who finally felt understood. “Ha Ha!” James roared and clapped his hands. “Knew someone would get to it sooner or later. If I’m bound to be a part of nature again rotting as a corpse, I might as well become a prettier form of it and offer my own hide to the state to and to my friend.
“One more thing.” James sat forward a little, his face slightly tilted, about to fill the scene with more dramatic dialogue, like they were all in the leaves of a novel. “I want them drums banged on every year on the anniversary of my death. Every May Fourth, if Harlow don’t do it, Boggus sure will, at least. I think y’all actually ought to make that bastard Harlow bring that drum with him to court, and force him to bang it in goddamn public, but . . .” He trailed off and grinned at them, sitting back in his chair again and putting his arm on the adjacent chair, letting the thought hang in the morning heat inside the bacon-fragrant cabin.
“Also, I want my innards gifted to Mr. Barclay, proprietor of The Grand Hotel. I want him to use my insides as fertilizer for a garden.”
He paused and sat back in his chair and smiled. “Yeah. I just want to be of use. Society reckons a person or animal worthless if they ain’t of use. And Jenny’s father wanted to call me a Hyde, didn’t he? After that book character? So, he kin have my actual hide.”
At eleven, as they drove on the rocky trip to Beeville’s town center, Walsh turned to James and said, “That crib you saw.”
“Yeah?” James asked with no apparent interest.
“I had a son once,” Walsh said, swallowing hard. “The diphtheria took him.”
James looked off at the gently rolling horizon and so did Walsh. The oaks thrashing and crashing like waves, green leaves bending to their lighter undersides. The horses knew the direction without his consistent guidance, so Walsh could look away as he couldn’t bear to look at James while he spoke. Sage brush and the orange and white flowers between the sharp fronds of thorn scrub scraped the air in little wind-thrashed colonies. It was a restless world of vegetation, not a reaction from a coming storm but a thing agitated at a coming anomaly, a disturbance of natural law. But then Walsh reminded himself that nature didn’t concern itself with human affairs, that this was his own anthropomorphizing impulse. In confirmation, he could smell building moisture in the air, a sharp acquatic sniff that lightly moistened his nasal passages.
“Sorry to hear it,” James muttered.
“And my wife . . .” Walsh continued. “She said she was going for a walk one day. We spent two days searching, myself and my uncle, Karl. We searched night and day, and we’d spotted a pack of yellow eyes in the dark. Lobos or coyotes. Spectral beasts in the moonlight, growling and loping along the earth. Then we got the idea to follow them. Sure enough, we found her. Her flesh was ripped and gouged, scrapings of predator jaws. A bullet wound in her head and a revolver on the ground.”
James said nothing but looked at the rhythmic movement of the bulky muscles rippling beneath the chestnut horse hide.
“I want you to promise me something,” Walsh said.
“Anything,” James responded with a sniffle.
“I’m not so convinced there is such a thing as a heaven, a paradise. Any sort of afterlife at all, for that matter. But I hope there is, because it’s the only thing that justifies the gnashing maw of this world, that life is a kind of test, and those who survive without succumbing to selfishness and wanton indulgence get to be rewarded by eternal peace. It’s a comforting notion. It will save me many a day in this world.”
“It is,” James said.
“If there is such a notion, a heaven or even a hell, I want you to find them, my wife and son. I want you to be there with them as you were with me. Does that sound like something you could manage?”
James, though he had told Walsh he wouldn’t display sadness at an unjustified death as soon as they got on the coach, but parodic glee, had already sniffled and teared up.
“Hell, Walsh,” he said, a croak of sadness escaping his throat, “that there are sounds like some kinda paradise. I think I kin manage that.”
“You’d like ‘em,” Walsh said. “They’ll keep you fine company.”
At noon in Beeville, a few ribbons of dark clouds were passing overhead and everyone knew the storm would get worse due to a supercell in the South. The wind rippled a thirty-three starred American flag flying above their heads, jerking from the pole so violently people below thought it might tear off. A few raindrops were falling as a precursor to the oncoming storm, and the air bore the natural tension of a soggy heaviness, a weight it needed to dispense.
James slipped the rope he himself had tied over his neck calmly, looking at the sky to the South. He vowed he wouldn’t look at the audience at all; he only looked at Walsh one last time and nodded, firmly, briefly, pointing his chin out a little to him and expanding his eyelids for emphasis as he did so, and finally blinking as his pointed chin lowered, giving him a slow, firm nod of acknowledgment and appreciation.
Then he tightened the slip knot around his neck and stood over the platform.
He grinned wildly, back in the world of one of the books he hid his nose and mind in so often, driven to create a little drama.
He still didn’t look at the crowd, but he heard their shocked expressions. He looked at the sky one last time as the swirling thunderstorm with its black, filmy rain curtains sprinkling over the sunlight, slowly consuming it. The clouds were churning, becoming a large, thick, curled mute mass over the crown of a smaller, lighter cloud. Walsh recalled a book of Norse mythology he gave James to read at his cabin three months earlier to pass the time: the cloud was curling like a thick snake constricting over the breaking bones of nebulous prey, like a Jörmungandr, coming to defeat the old, cruel gods and unleash a new world. Or, more likely, he thought, it was an ouroboros, eating its own tail, forming a pattern with no end.
The crowd was quiet. After initially jeering at the boy upon arrival, throwing rotten produce and flinging dust in his direction so that the half of his body pointing toward the crowd was chalky, he looked like a man who has just been wrestling in the dirt, and they lapsed into reflective silence as soon as he tied his own knot and stood with the noose over his neck, still buoyant with his row of crooked, beige choppers grinning at them.
James continued smiling as the trapdoors opened, dropping his body through the trapdoor with a forceful violence that made his neck crack like a gunshot, echoing through the crowd and intermixing with the boom of distant thunder from the ouroboros storm. That strange smile was still on his face as his eyes went motionless, lids wide open and staring at the gathered citizens of Beeville that had known him his entire life. A darkened stain pooled through his jeans from his crotch and a few speckles of urine spattered on the ground through his right pantleg, mixing with the rain.
Walsh had seen Jenny Harlow hiding at the back corner of the crowd during the whole execution, probably afraid to be seen by her father. She was in a black shawl despite the humid pre-storm heat, which ran past her face, curtaining her hidden tears and obstructing her face from view. At the moment that the whip crack of James’s snapped neck radiated through the mostly silent crowd, she, too, snapped quickly down into the press of bodies in the back, the concentrated, sticky animal heat and bacterial odors he imagined she must have smelled among the great unwashed, prostrating herself onto the now rain-dampened dust. She was finally seen, Walsh thought, and people around her looked at her, bemused, gesturing, gossiping. But Walsh gathered that she didn’t seem to care much. He thought she finally wanted to be seen, to be found, unburdened, whatever the waiting punishment. Her tears dripped on the ground with the light rain, and then she lifted her head out of the large hoop of the shawl in a kind of climbing motion that extended her own neck too and then cried there standing in the open, heaving with the energy of the rage and sadness as she stared at her dapper father up on the stage behind her dead beloved.
Two months later, a two-horse buggy had turned down the Harlow family’s driveway with H.W. Walsh at the reins of the wagon alongside another man—an uncle of his visiting from Austin that was now nearing seventy. He was a history professor at the University of Texas, and what struck most others about him was the energy that belied his age and a wrinkled, too-tanned, sun-blemished face and a fully white beard bush puffing out around his chin. Two unexpectedly well-sculpted pectorals clefted out of the old man’s tan V-necked work shirt in tightly fibrous buns that didn’t sag, and two arms lunged out of the jagged sleeveless cutoff with biceps thick and tightly coiled as snake bodies with only a small pouch of skin sagging down, caving to time and gravity and fate. Walsh himself was attired in his usual flat-brimmed leather Stetson and brown leather vest, the star of his sheriff badge bearing a glinting fire-speck in the noontime sun, and he hated how that always seemed to attract errant eyes belonging to those who then suddenly talked a little lower or walked a little straighter. He’d grown to hate his profession and vowed to leave it within the end of the year.
Jenny was reading Dickens’s Bleak House, a book Walsh himself had read, doubtless amusing herself with Dickens's satirical barb about the legal system actively making its own business. Walsh himself had become less confused and hostile if only he viewed the justice system in the novel’s light, as it became less a conspiratorial maze and only a “coherent scheme.” She was on the ample front porch of her father’s circular three-story house—“humble but just ornate enough to hint at the labors of the dutiful public servant living within,” is how Jenny had said her father once described it to Walsh. Jenny herself said she described it as “panoptic,” after her exposure to Jeremy Bentham’s circular prison model at a course she’d taken at Vassar. It was Beeville’s panopticon, frontispiece in oval, sides by the same seventeen white, swirl-engraved Roman colonnades. In the back yet another porch extended outward for a greater distance of a yard or two for backyard entertaining. Above it all climbed a seven-gabled coal-scaled second story where the principal bedrooms formed almost perfectly equalized quadrants on every side of the house. Finally, on top there was a single little spike-domed watchtower with two painted windows depicting rightward-inclining legal scales and a blind, blonde, bunned Justice that had reminded Jenny, she’s said to Walsh, of the guard’s watchtower in the Bentham prison design. The two windows gleamed spectrally via candlelight at night and even usually during the day so that the interior, no matter the time of day, always appeared to be bustling with thought and energy, an intentional feature meant to reflect the mental habits of Henry Harlow to the rest of Beeville. It was an ample piece of land and property, but the caretakers grew no crops or other goods to support family meals; it was indeed an artifact of the public’s trust in one man to enforce the law, its monument to the man who kept them safe.
In a way Walsh hadn’t felt until James’s death, the sight of the house sent shivers through his spine to know the house was partially supported by so much innocent blood: how many others had Jenny’s father wrongfully sentenced, condemned to wander the streets as pariahs should they escape the gables, he wondered? Not improbable conspiracies rippled through the community like waves; Beeville harbored small-town gossips like no other. Tavern dwellers noted how her father and Al Blair still openly slapped each other’s backs and crowed with delight over whispered, private jokes that only they would get. After James’s death, Jenny had told Walsh, she had persisted in a minimal act of rebellion; she climbed the ladder to her father’s tower office when he was away and blew out the candles so he would have to keep lighting them when he returned. Every morning at breakfast he had complained about an inexplicable draft in the tower office that he’d always failed to find.
Jenny was excited to see her dear friend and immediately marked her book upon the carriage’s stop. She stood up, flattening and fussing with her golden frizzy hair a bit to look a bit more presentable. Jenny started down to them, lifting her skirt as she descended the front steps. When the carriage stopped, Walsh tipped his hat to her. “Ma’am,” he said, smiling ironically at his formality. Jenny could barely get out a “Good morning, Sheriff" before the older man leapt out of the passenger seat with surprisingly catlike reflexes and sped to the back of the carriage.
“This is . . . er, was, heh, Karl , my uncle on my mother’s side. A professor at the university in Austin, you know," Walsh said when she was next to the carriage. Walsh emitted a tiny chuckle. “He likes to maximize his time, as you can see.”
This elderly soul's untamed energy still astounded and perplexed Walsh, who was intrigued by the uncharacteristically industrious force of nature that so doggedly defied the influence of age's limitations. Karl went to the back of the wagon and pulled out a medium-sized drum that was rounded with oak, but it was otherwise indistinctive except for some lettering etched on the top that Jenny couldn’t see from her angle. The old man walked toward her with it, arms outstretched, but when he saw she wasn’t about to immediately take it and was confused by what it was, he scowled a bit and gently set the drum on the ground.
“Well,” Karl said impatiently, looking up at Walsh, “explain it to her.”
“I was fixing to. James wanted you to have this drum here,” Walsh said, matter-of-factly, looking at the drum.
“It’s a . . . drum?” Jenny asked, looking at it like she might look at a funny-looking dog, not quite sure whether to pet it or keep her distance. She turned to look at Karl and said, “I’m quite sorry. I had no earthly idea you were handing this to me!” Karl gazed at Jenny and shrugged slightly, his face unmoved, and then he strode to the back of the carriage.
“Yes, ma’am,” Walsh continued. “It has some . . . eh, peculiar writing on it, but it’s meant as a kind of . . . commemoration. " He wanted . . ." Here he stalled, seemingly tasting something unpleasurable, and he briefly looked away, unsure if he should tell her with what materials the drum was constructed. Then he recovered and looked at her, more resolute, making the decision that such a thing would be unconscionable. “He wanted you and your father to remember him.”
"My father?" she asked, her eyes widening and her brows furrowing.
“Yes, ma’am. It is his gift, primarily. He wanted him to have it with the instructions that he should drum on it every May 4th, the anniversary of his hanging.”
Jenny’s mouth arched in a huge smile when he said this and then guffawed, to her surprise and embarrassment, crouching and putting her hands on her knees while looking absently at the distance for a few seconds. She appeared to grin, and then she redirected herself back to Walsh and said, “That . . . that sounds so much like my James.” She mirthfully laughed at the sky for a minute.
She sniffled as she took out a handkerchief and daubed at her tears. “That jokester spirit and gumption he had. Oh, my my.” She turned and looked at the ground and shook her head in amazement. Then her happy tears turned to ones of genuine sadness, and she reached for her handkerchief again.
"That's why I loved him so much,” she continued, sniffling. “He was so creative and kind. I was always more articulate than he was, but he was so much smarter. If he had had the education I’d had at Vassar, which I feel fortunate enough to have received at all given my sex, he would have lapped miles around me intellectually before I got a hold of an initial premise. He anticipated almost all of the thoughts of the philosophers I labored to explain to him in his own way.”
She guffawed in amazement again, and then she looked at the drum. “But what a brilliant and devious little scheme. And, of course, I can’t tell my father the drum is from James, or he’d never bang on it, so I’ll tell him a little fib. It shall be a gift from one of the grateful townspeople for keeping them safe from the atrocious murderer,” she said, enunciating the last two words in a derisive fashion.
“What you wish to tell them is your own concern,” said Walsh, smiling conspiratorially right along with her. “Of course, you can trust that my lips will be tightly sealed as to the question. Of course, if he gets hold of the will, then it’ll be discovered, and you could be in a heap of trouble.”
“Oh, I don’t care anymore,” she said, her face suddenly tight, her jaws clenched, her lips trembling slightly. “I just don’t care what anyone thinks, least of all that hypocritical devil. All the hiding we did . . . from him, from the rest of the town. It was a series of constructed rules and obligations meant to preserve the illusion of separateness between the classes, to maintain that arbitrary, invisible line that keeps rich folk tidy and comfortable and feeling superior to the dregs of the populace. My parents and their associates never cared a jot about what we desired. You lived with James and protected him for four months. Did he strike you as a murderer?”
“No, Ma’am,” Walsh said confidently. “No, no, no. I wouldn’t have invited you to come see him so often if I wasn't sure. And I’ve known a few murderers in my time. They have those blank, simian eyes, filled with pure selfish need and impulsive excess. I agree. He—he was smart as a whip, and sensitive. Despite being able to read, he never learned the grammar because he started too late. And that was part of what unfortunately got him lumped in with the rest of his family, that lowly manner of speaking. Those markers, like you said, help maintain those invisible class lines.”
Karl leaped back into the front seat of the carriage next to the sheriff with the same alarming quickness, without a hint of exhaustion, like some kind of useful gnome servant in a fairy tale: hovering in the background, providing indefatigable adjustment, inspiration, and sometimes instruction. A professor unafraid to get his hands dirty, which one could attribute to his upbringing with Walsh’s mother in Galveston. A man that defied the very class lines about which they had been conversing.
"In any case," Walsh smiled at her one last time. “Another cart might be coming along with his other belongings as soon as the probate court rules you can have the rest of his property as soon as it’s settled. And in the meantime, that’s drum’s sure something to tell your parents about when they get home. Now, if you’ll excuse, me, my uncle here is eager to get on home to Austin.”
He tipped his hat at her again, took the leather reins of the horses, clicked his tongue twice, and he trotted off with the drum on the ground next to her, and she nodded to them as they passed her.
H.W. Walsh lived to a grand old age, trading in his badge to begin again as a tutor to the children attending schools in Beeville. He thought about whether he was audacious enough to attend the university at his age, but he ultimately decided the idea was just too strange. He even outlived Henry Harlow, who was only forty-five when he prosecuted James, but he died of a heart attack at fifty-eight. When Henry Harlow passed, Jenny inherited her father's property and moved back with her husband, redesigning the house so that it was markedly less panoptic. She continued to follow the ritual, Walsh noted, and the neighborhood continued to wonder about a non-musical woman’s sudden, periodic enthusiasm for percussive beats on one night of the year. They also noticed her simple-natured and inquisitive husband that his wife seemed to care for but quite noticeably never really loved, and their equally perplexed children, who seemed to indulge their mother's whims every May Fourth. She told Walsh one day that she’d finally garnered the courage to tell their son, who had been given James's namesake, about the young man named James Singleton. She hoped the young James would carry on the tradition and tell his own children about the man who hanged himself in Bee County when no one else could tie a hangman’s noose, and then she reluctantly informed the young James about the peculiar fuel the community garden used to grow their food so his body could continue to be of use to his community. Walsh remembered the young man being fascinated by the notion that a human body could grow food so others could continue to live.
Even on his own deathbed, Walsh never mentioned to her that the drum was made from James’s own skin.