The Prisoner, historical fiction by Steve Darnell at Spillwords.com
Tuyen Vo

The Prisoner

The Prisoner

written by: Steve Darnell

 

Looking through rusty bars, the prisoner watched as drunks and vagrants constructed the gallows from which he would soon hang. He stared at the dark cloud covered mountains in the distance, noticing most of the snow had melted from the peaks. Spring was only a few short weeks away.

A load clap of thunder interrupted his thoughts. Rain started pouring down in sheets, soaking the workers on the gallows. They scrambled for cover inside the smoke-filled blacksmith shop across the street, leaving their tools behind.

City folk, the prisoner thought. A little rain and they run for cover. Most of them smelly bastards need a shower, anyway. The rain will do ‘em good. Somebody should get them some soap. He thought, laughing to himself, trying to bring some humor to his pressing dilemma.

A small muddy creek soon formed, flowing down the middle of main street, carving a small canyon in the muddy road. Thunder continued to rumble, echoing off the barren mountains and down into the valley. The wind blew hard against the jail, rattling his cell’s windowpane, as the storm blew over the town.

If this rain keeps up, there will be a river through the middle of town before nightfall. He thought, watching through the window, with a bit of dying interest. Maybe the rain will clean up this fuck’n town. Better yet, wash this whole shithole of a town away down into the flats.

The spring thaw was underway and would only help fuel the flooding that would come in a couple of weeks.

The hell with it. I will not be here in a couple of weeks to see the flooding, anyway. I’m not sure why I am even thinking of this shit. Who cares? Floodings happen all the time back home in the spring. But not like in this godforsaken place. I saw nothing like this that I can remember.

His mind was racing as he first thought about the flood that might happen and then about the murder that he committed.

I don’t remember the man I killed. He must have been an ass, or I would not have fought with him. Damn, I wish I could remember. Shit, I should have stayed in Indiana.

Fred Grooms was to hang the next day for murdering Tom Barlow, a rancher who lived outside of town in the next valley across the Tioga Pass.

According to a few sober town citizens who witnessed the killing that night in the saloon, the question was not how the killing happened, but why it happened. Even in the sometime wild anarchy of the lawless west, there were rules involved. Especially over a whore. If someone broke the rules, justice would be served.

A fight arose between Grooms and Barlow, over who would take the town’s only whore, Mary Perkins, upstairs for one of her famous business encounters first. Fights over Mary were common in the past and had happened often. She was the only available prostitute for fifty miles, in a territory full of horny men.

Mary, however, was much too ugly for most strangers to fight very hard over. Broken noses or egos were the usual outcome. Never murders. She was not worth killing a man for her company. Mary was hideous. She was almost not worth the five dollars she charged to take a man upstairs. But she would do in a pinch.

And her business was good. As her husband, the saloon owner, would attest.

I should have stayed in camp. He thought as he lay down on the cell’s flimsy cot.

He thought back on what got him into this mess. The entire night of the murder was only a whiskey hazed blur in his memory. He vaguely remembered the whore in question.

Fred did not care about the morality of his crime. He did not care whether the whore was ugly. His only thoughts were about the half-finished gallows and his family that he would never see again.

He also realized the rain had stopped. He lay on the cot with his hands behind his head, thinking of his situation.

Damn. One more night to live. After all the sins and wrongs I have committed in my life, and all the good deeds I have done for people. I am going to be hung in a shitty town for fight’n over an ugly whore.

The thought of dying sent a shiver down his spine and caused his bowels to growl. The feelings soon passed. He shook his head, looking at the ceiling. He had never thought much about dying since returning from the war. During his time in the Army, he always thought of death. Grooms learned to put dying in the back of his mind, or he would go crazy.

His only concern after returning from the war was making enough money to feed his family and buying some whiskey.

During the war, he had seen enough death and suffering. Grooms saw his friends die marching in a skirmish line, walking towards Confederate lines in several battles. He wondered how many Rebs he had killed during all the fighting. He was sure he had killed a few, but never saw those poor souls. We always shot them at a distance.

But hell, it was war. He felt no guilt over what he did during the war. I was doing my job.

He had killed no one face to face until he killed the rancher. He felt guilt. But only felt sorry for himself. Not for killing the rancher.

I am going to die soon. They say I stabbed the man, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember. Damned whiskey. If I killed him, I am sure it was a fair fight. I don’t fight dirty, drunk or not.

“My imagination is getting the better of me.” As he stood next to his cot, he whispered to himself. He felt weak-kneed and still sick to his stomach. He sat back down and put his head in his hands.

His thoughts wandered back to his thirty-acre farm in Indiana.

Not the best farm in Wayne County, but it fed his family. I should have stayed at home. I wonder what my wife and son are doing right now. Getting the garden ready for spring planting, I reckon. I wish we would not of fought the day I left. I should have stayed like she wanted. Farm life was hard, but not that bad.

He bought the farm when he returned to Centerville, his hometown, towards the end of the Civil War. He enlisted when the war started and later wounded during the battle of Lookout Mountain in Georgia. The wound was bad enough for his discharge.

Farm life was not in his blood, and he soon got restless. The lure of gold and excitement in California had corrupted many young men in the 1800s. He was one of many who made the trip west. His plan, like the others, was to head west, strike it rich in the gold fields, buy some land and send for his family.

Tin Cup was a small town of 525 people in the Rocky Mountains, on the trail to Gunnison, Colorado, which was a stepping off point for destinations farther west. Prospectors discovered gold there in 1859 and the town flourished.

A mining camp located three miles outside of town, at the base of Walker Mountain, was Groom’s ultimate, final destination. He purchased a small claim along the Shiloh Creek that ran off the mountain soon after he arrived.

A Baptist preacher from Denver on his way to Gunnison convinced him of the riches in the mountains around Tin Cup and sold him the last plot left in his land portfolio. He convinced Grooms they sold the other plots to gold speculators out east and begged him to keep the information confidential. He did not want unwanted competition in the area.

With the preacher’s true tales of gold nuggets, the size of walnuts, that others had found in the area, Fred panned for gold and his dreams, with little luck. Every night, for ten months, after a day finding nothing but gravel, he thought of his wife and children on his small Indiana farm, waiting for his blessing to move west.

Grooms rarely socialized with the other miners in camp and spent most nights reading the Bible his wife gave to him before he left home. He read in silence, in his tent, always thinking his luck would change the next day. His luck changed, but not how he envisioned.

The murder occurred the first and only night that he went into town. The saloon was the only place for a drink to celebrate his birthday. He had no intention of celebrating his birthday until he found a trace of gold in his pan that morning. His evening ended that night, when he woke up in the jail cell the next morning.

His murder trial took place the next day in the saloon.

The saloon, like many in the west, was a crude reproduction of an eastern bar without the amenities. An oak plank supported by four old flour barrels ran across the rear of the saloon. There was only one beer tap. Shelves on the wall behind the bar held beer mugs and whiskey glasses and clay jugs of cider and whisky bottles. In the main area were two square wooden tables, each with four wooden chairs. A potbellied stove burned to the left. A staircase on the right side of the room led to a landing and two bedrooms. The room on the left for the whore, the room on the right for the owner.

The murder trial took place the morning after the killing. Sheriff Upshaw, who was also the magistrate of Tin Cup, sat as judge. The bartender, John Livingston, was the prosecutor since he witnessed the murder. Fred Grooms, the prisoner/defendant, stood in his own defense. Six hungover men who also witnessed the murder sat as jurors. A few people from town watched and waited for the trial to be over and the saloon to reopen.

A guilty verdict took fifteen minutes after Fred admitted he had killed Tom Barlow and, after a heated debate, over when the bar was to open. They sentenced Fred to hang in two days as soon as Tom Smith, the undertaker and barber, got back to town after visiting his mother in Denver.

After the trial, the sheriff had a whisky and escorted Fred back to his jail cell.

Later that day, Elizabeth Barlow, Tom’s wife, visited the jail. She told the sheriff she wanted to talk to the prisoner.

“About what?” the sheriff asked.

“About what happened.”

“You know what happened.”

“Yes.” She spoke. “But I need to look at the man. He ruined my family’s life. I need to see him and look him in the eyes.”

“Alright, but you only have ten minutes.”

The sheriff walked onto the landing at the top of the stairs and peered into the jail cell at the prisoner.

“Mrs. Barlow wants to talk to you.”

“Who is Mrs. Barlow?”

“The wife of the man you killed two days ago.”

“Why does she want to talk to me?”

“She wants to see you before we hang you.”

She followed the sheriff back to the cell. Fred was sitting on the cot, looking at the floor. He looked up when she walked to the door of the cell.

She looked at the prisoner. He was short, heavyset, dirty, with long scraggly oily hair, an unkept beard, holding a bible the whore had given him after the trial.

“What is your name?” She asked.

“Fred.” He said. “Fred Grooms.”

“Why did you kill my husband?”

“I would rather not say Ma’am. We were a fight’n, it was an accident. I did not mean it to happen. I feel terrible.”

“Because they will hang you tomorrow? Or are you genuinely sorry for the sin you committed?”

“Yes, I do not want to die, but I mainly feel terrible for killing your husband. I hope God forgives me.”

“God forgives everybody.” She said. “What was the fight about?”

“Like I said ma’am. I would rather not say. It was just a fight that got out of hand.” He could not bring himself to tell her they were fighting over whose turn it was with an ugly whore.

“And where did the fight occur?”

“In the saloon, Ma’am.” He said, looking at the floor.

“Did you ask for God to forgive you?”

“Yes ma’am. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Never. I hope you burn in hell and I am sure you will.” She said curtly, as she walked back into the sheriff’s office.

***

The next morning, the sheriff brought breakfast to Fred.

“Well, today is the day. You want these eggs?” He said, holding the plate near the bars of the cell.

“No. Got no appetite. Could use a whisky, though.”

“Sorry, can’t give you that.” The sheriff said.

“Can you do something for me, sheriff?”

“What?”

“I can’t read nor write. Can you write a letter to my wife in Centerville, Indiana, and tell her what happened?”

“Sure, what is her name?”

“Sherry.” Fred thought for a moment. “Can you leave out the part about the whore?”

“Yes, don’t worry. Our secret.”

“It is time.” The sheriff said, watching the sad expression on Fred’s face.

Sheriff Upshaw escorted Fred out of the jail to the gallows. A small crowd of townspeople had formed to watch the hanging. Elizabeth Barlow stood in front of the gathering.

Fred stood on the gallows looking out over the crowd. He thought of his wife, kids, and friends he knew in the past. His knees were weak again. The sheriff grabbed his shoulder to steady him.

I had a good life. Short but good.

Before the sheriff put a black bag over Fred’s head, he asked if he had any last words. Fred nodded his head and looked at the widow Barlow.

“Will you forgive me, ma’am, please?” He asked.

“Hell no!” she yelled. “Get on with the hanging sheriff!”

I guess I should have told her about the whore. What a bitch. He thought as the sheriff pulled the lever to the trapdoor.

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