Clarence’s ears hum with the gritty sound of snow crunching under his boots. He likes the way the ice gives way under his weight as he climbs the hill. It makes each of his steps feel powerful, reflecting his sense of purpose. Every breath sends clouds of thick fog billowing into the atmosphere. When he gets to the top, he looks at the rigging. The town did a good job piecing it together. The freshly sawed pine resists the frost, clinging to the warmth of the early morning light. That’s good too. Clarence had seen hangings where the trap door stuck and men strangled on the slide. Better for it to be clean.
The rest of the town hadn’t woke yet, so he takes a seat on the edge of the platform. The frost breaks at his knees, sending bits of packed snow down his boot. Clarence grimaces from the chill. Weren’t nothing worse than wet socks in his opinion. He removes his pack and pulls out a steel canteen wrapped in a moth eaten orange scarf. He uncorks it, taking a deep breath of the sweet, hot air that comes billowing out, thawing the frost from his mustache. He’d boiled the coffee himself, so it’d probably taste like dirt, but it was hot dirt so that’d be alright.
He doesn’t take a drink just yet, instead he numbly fingers the holes in the scarf, the scalding steel making his hands feel electric. He’d bought the yarn from a trade deal down Mexico way. He didn’t have much use for wool himself, too itchy, too susceptible to the rain. He preferred the feel of skins, though his wife Sarah didn’t care for the smell. She said if she’d wanted to marry a steer, she’d have done it. It was her that knitted the scarf.
Clarence sniffs the sharp air, trying to stifle a tickle. He pinches his nose and takes a hard swallow from the canteen. Once your nose starts going, it’s hard to get it to stop. Then the Montana cold freezes the snot and just makes the whole thing worse. He lets it go when he knows it’s dry. Down in the town he could see smoke. Others are making their breakfast and preparing for the execution. It won’t be long now.
As the warmth returns to his fingers, Clarence can feel the texture of the weave. Where it’d once been rough, it’s now smoothed by wear, oil and sweat. He misses the itchiness now, preferred the raw feel that it had when it bore the marks of Sarah’s quick fingers, the even texture of her design.
She’d made him wear it when he volunteered to join the riding party that was going after the Dalton gang. The outlaws had passed through town and made a mess of the storehouse where the trade union kept their silver. Shot two men on their way out and took most of Clarence’s business with them. Sarah told him it was her favorite scarf and she’d come down to hell to get it back if he didn’t return it to her. All the lawmen rode out with him, every decent man who could carry a rifle. Every decent man.
He can see the people now. They’re gathering up outside the jail. From here they look like dots in the snow. Like a swarm of fire ants come to eat away the rotting flesh from a wound. Clarence takes another swallow of the coffee. He knows one of those dots is Samuel “The Sawmill” Creedy. An itch grow high on his back where he knows he can’t reach it.
No one gave a thought to Samuel when the posse was forming up to hunt after Dalton and his gang. Truth was, no one gave much thought to Samuel at all. He was a little man with more bone than grit. He had a gimp leg from an accident in a lumberyard as a boy. He used to drink till he pissed himself on a stool outside the tannery. Children would throw rocks at him and he’d go limping after them screaming, “sons of whores! Devil spawn! Stay and fight you shits! I’ll fuck you like goats!”
The women didn’t care for him but the men mostly ignored the codger. He’d never hurt nobody before. He found work mixing the tannins for the leather. It was a shit job that only paid a bunk and the odd slab of beef. That wasn’t even the worst part. The leather had a smell of rot that soaked into a man, that not even piss or sweat or stale drink could make worse. No one else would do it.
Clarence watches the steady stream of people walking up the hill and his hands start to shake. He can see their faces now. The priest has a dozen or so little cuts on his jowls around odd patches of stubble the razor must’ve missed. To his left, the town sheriff marches like a soldier. He probably was, though Clarence knew better than to ask. He has more grey in his beard, it seems, than he had yesterday. He looks tired. His hand is clamped to the shoulder of another man, shaking in the dawn. Samuel looks like a skeleton, like death hisself come to die. A stark wind picks up and Clarence shields his nose. The smell of rot still lingers.
He thinks about Sarah, about what she must have felt that night. Could be she was out on the patio, working on a fresh blanket while she waited for him to come home. It were a full moon, Clarence remembers, so she’d not have needed the lantern. He’d scolded her for using good oil when it weren’t needed. She liked making blankets for the women in town whenever they had a child. She called it practice for when she’d be making one of her own. He imagines a breeze carrying a chill and a foul smell, her covering her arms and wrinkling her nose. Then he pictures a figure, limping out of the dark, clutching a lever-action, Spencer Repeater. No one owned up to where he got the rifle, though it was surely stolen.
Clarence could almost hear Sarah’s voice, kindly reminding Samuel of the hour, suggesting that her husband would be home soon. He could see the greedy look, the finger groping at the steel trigger; hear the thoughts, the urges, the screams, the fear.
Samuel was miles away when the riding party came home. They were drunk on victory, dragging their stolen silver to the safe and Dalton’s corpse to the town square. It were hours before Clarence went home, and then eight months before he made it here. Samuel was easy to track. No town wanted him, no gang would have him, so he just kept going north. Eventually the nights got too cold for him and he stopped.
Clarence watches them fit the noose around Samuel’s neck. The rope doesn’t want to give in the cold, but they make sure it’s tight. The priest has his say. Clarence thinks about stopping him, throwing his book in the dirt and spitting on The Sawmill’s salvation but he drinks his coffee instead. No words are gonna save Samuel now.
The trap door opens. There’s a crack. The Sawmill is dead.
One by one, the people of Hamilton, Montana make their way down the hill. The priest lingers for a moment, muttering his comforts to open sky and then he too, follows his neighbors to the warm fires below. Clarence lingers beside the corpse. This was as far as he’d dared to think. Without Samuel, he felt suddenly empty. It was like he’d swallowed a brand and the fire that was keeping him going was quenched, leaving cold iron in his belly.
He looks at the taught rope. The braid is thick and new. There’s no sign of fraying or mold that might cause it to snap. It could surely hold a man of his weight. He couldn’t pull the lever himself but he could jump. It would be quick and painless, like it was for Samuel. It could work.
The sun peeks over the trees, lighting up the snow like a sea of diamonds. He feels the slow burn settle on his frost bitten skin. Slowly, Clarence unwinds the threadbare scarf from his canteen. The coffee’s gone cold anyhow. He ties it in a knot around his neck and the soft wool kisses his throat.
Little town like this, could be they’d be needing an extra pair of hands, an extra gun to keep it safe. He’d like to repay their kindness. He turns toward the town and carefully treads his way down the melting path, one step at a time.