Tag Archives: short stories

1976

By Michelle Pretorius

And then, they crossed the line. Pop. A gunshot rang out. A girl screamed as the limp body of her 13-year old brother fell. School children froze, the stones that they had picked up to fling at the police still in their hands. The ones who had adhered to the directive of a “peaceful” march stood dazed, confusion marring their youthful faces. Pop. The second gunshot ignited a fervor, defying reason, ignoring fear. The children surged forward. Outnumbered, their fear augmented by the hate of thousands, the white men in their police fatigues let the dogs loose.

Placards proclaiming, “Down with Afrikaans,” and, “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu,” fell to the ground. The bearers reached for bricks and trashcans, anything they could use to defend themselves against the beasts. An Alsatian’s growl turned to a yelp as the first stone hit its side, it’s body failing under the assault. The children’s frenetic rage converged on the dumb animal, bashing it to a bloody pulp. A boy of no more than ten lifted an empty Coke bottle above his head. Pop. The bottle fell from his hands, blood spreading where the bullet had ripped his chest. He looked disbelievingly at the dog, quietly falling next to it. His companions dispersed, their eyes wide with fear. This was not supposed to happen. This was not how this day was meant to end.

The law was passed two years before. No more Xhosa, no more Zulu. Instruction in black schools was to be given in Afrikaans and English only. Teachers showed up to class with Afrikaans dictionaries, trying to teach their subjects in a language they themselves could barely speak.

A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory,” the deputy minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, proclaimed. “He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarreling about the medium of instruction among the black people? No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”

Jacob had felt the mood change as the screws were tightened one more notch, his own resentment burning. They had rallied early that morning. As unsuspecting students showed up for school, they were told by the Student’s Representative Council Action Committee that today would be the day of protest, kept secret to catch the police unaware. They would march to other schools in the township, gain strength in numbers, make their voices heard. No, their parents didn’t know, but the older generation had become complacent, beaten down by so many years of oppression that they would not fight any more.

Once the march started, they had found their way blocked by the police. But peace held. The procession rerouted, taking, “Nkosi Sikilelel’ iAfrika,” as their anthem, a sense of elation as they sang it over and over, a mantra of hope, their number growing, joined by township gangsters and brave adults. “God bless Africa, let its horn be raised, listen to our prayers, Lord bless us, we are its family.”

But then the line was crossed. Automatic rifle shots rang like hail hitting the roofs of the shacks during spring storms. Government buildings and school buses burned, symbols of the oppressor that took their land, their dignity, their power. The violence only receded with nightfall as women searched the streets for their children, the day’s events punctuated by raw inconsolable wails.

Jacob felt nauseous as he looked at the rows of bodies on the ground, covered by newspapers because there weren’t enough sheets. He had not allowed himself to think or feel, only react, running for shelter from the tanks that roamed Soweto. Leaning against the wreckage of a car to catch his breath, he noticed the body of a white man. Around his neck hung a hastily-drawn board reading, “BEWARE AFRIKANERS.” Jacob stepped closer. He recognized the man, a social worker in the township, always good for a laugh or to bum a smoke. He stared into the man’s glassy blue eyes. It felt unreal to him, this thing that had happened. He never thought that they would be able to strike back. All his life he had believed that the white man was untouchable, yet here one of them lay. He reached out to touch the man’s cold cheek, make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Pop. A hot pain seared through Jacob’s left side and he fell on top of the social worker. Pop. Dust rose up a few feet ahead of him. Pop. Jacob rolled off the body and sidled under the car, his instinct for survival trumping the pain. Pop. His leg felt warm and wet, but he waited, too frightened to move. Pop. Pop. Shots fired, not at him this time, but in the distance. The nearest building was a sink-plate outhouse. As soon as he was sure they had moved on he crawled over to it, thankful for the cover of rapidly descending darkness. Let it end, please God, he thought as he closed the flimsy door behind him and sank to the floor, the dank stench enveloping him. Just for tonight, let the slaughter stop.

Jacob didn’t know how long he lay on the outhouse floor before the two women found him. Too weak to stand on his own, they hoisted him between them and carried him to the hospital. A dry blood trail led from the emergency room entrance to the intake desk. A gurney wheeled past them, the face of its occupant covered. Jacob felt dizzy, clinging to the side of the desk. The confusion of bodies and doctors distorted in his fever dream, mashing into one being, an abstract monster, like the painting in his father’s study, red and undulating and unforgiving.

“I am Jacob Morgan,” he managed to tell the creature as it put its arms around him. “You give me muti, fix me good, okay?” The red thing’s lips moved, but he couldn’t hear what it was saying.

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he was in a hospital bed, his left side throbbing with a warm pain that extended all the way to his stomach. His mother’s careworn face floated in front of him. She wore a black beret and her good Sunday dress. He thought it funny that she had dressed up. The ward was filled with beds, identical to his, their occupants bandaged and beaten down, adults hovering at their sides, their expressions mirroring his mother’s.

“Jacob?” She was crying.

“He’s all right, Prudence.” His father put his hands on her shoulders.

“We scared those Dutchmen lekker.” Jacob forced the words through parched lips, ignoring the look in his father’s eyes. He had watched his dad deal with the apartheid government for years, defending activists, trying to remain civil, and for what? They, the youth of Soweto, did more to put a dent in the armor of the white man in one day, than his dad had done in a lifetime. They had shown them that they would fight back.

“What you did was stupid. You don’t think.” His dad pointed a finger up at the sky. “You hear that?” Jacob became aware of a constant drone. “The police are coming down on Soweto. The only thing you’ve accomplished was to give them an excuse to fire on us without asking questions.” His dad’s anger spilled into white-hot stupor. He turned his head, clinging to his mother as if she was the only thing keeping him standing.

“No more, Jacob. Please.” His mother reached for his father, an intimate gesture that made Jacob uncomfortable.

“We have to get you out of here.” His father wiped his eyes. “The police are taking names of everyone that was treated for bullet wounds.”

Jacob let his mother help him up, dress him, as if he was a little boy.

“I bought a train ticket.” His father stood by the door, hands restless in his pockets, eying everyone that walked into the ward. “Tessa will take you for a while.”

“I’m not going, Pa. People have to stand together. Not chaile like rabbits. We’ve had enough.”

“I’m not going to allow you to toyi-toyi and be target practice for those animals.”

“Please, Jacob.” His mom clutched his hands. “Don’t break your mamma’s heart.”

“If I’m in danger, so are you.”

“We’ll be all right.” His dad had the, “and that’s final,” look about him, a steel door lowering between them. Jacob knew arguing would be useless.

A nurse rushed into the ward and handed his dad paperwork. “We documented it as an abscess,” she said.

Ke a leboha.” His dad had a look of earnest gratitude on his face.

Jacob leaned on his mother, while his father led the way. Outside, the air was hazy and thick with smoke. Riot police manned the perimeter, rifles gripped in front of them, scowling at a crowd of retreating stone throwers, the smell of teargas lingering. Jacob’s packed suitcase perched on the back seat of the VW beetle and he sidled up next to it. His father navigated past the crowds, taking narrow back alleys between shacks and government housing. People spilled in and out of liquor stores and shops, running off with their loot before a bullet had the chance to stop them.

His father jerked the wheel as a stone bounced off the windshield. Jacob crouched behind the front seat. His mother reached for him across the divide and he clung to her hand, fear breaking through the fuzzy reality of the past day, his breath coming in shallow rasps, his pain forgotten. The stones became a horse’s hooves pounding in rhythm with his heart. His father screamed. The car skidded to a halt. His mother’s grip grew limp. Her body slouched forward.

A police officer flung the door open.“What you doing?” he shouted. “Get out of the car.”

His dad raised his hands, his face pale with terror. He addressed the young policeman in Afrikaans.

“My wife, Sir. She’s hurt. We have to get her to a hospital.”

“You stand over there. Move.”

His father got out and moved away from the car, his hands behind his head. The policeman leaned over the seat.

Jacob felt something explode in him as the man touched his mother. “No!” He reached over the seat to stop the man.

The policeman punched him in the face, a sharp blow that threw him back onto his suitcase. “Want to die today, kaffir?

“Please, Officer. Please. He’s my son. Only a boy,” his father pleaded form the sideline. Jacob had never seen him like that, scared, begging, raw fear forcing him to his knees. He addressed Jacob in Sotho, pleading with him to remain calm, to do what the police said. Jacob slowly opened the car door, hatred raging in his veins, his hands shaking behind his head, the stitches in his side painfully straining while the policeman trained the gun at his head.

“Please, Officer.” His father cupped his hands to the white man like a beggar. “My wife, she needs a doctor.”

The policeman sneered. “What she needs is a morgue. If your son’s not careful, he’ll join her.”

“Please, Baas. Please. We do not want trouble. We want to get away. Please, Baas.

Jacob looked at his father with his knees in the dirt, his pride gone, his dignity gone. It was too much. The pressure cooker inside Jacob forced a hole through his heart. Even as he told himself not to cry in front of these men, sobs of anger, and grief, and shame, convulsed his body.

The policeman focused his attention on a column of smoke in the distance. Through his tears, Jacob noticed the look of embarrassment on his face. So they had a conscience, these men. Perhaps they were even human.

“The coloured hospital in Eldorado Park is open,” the policeman said, his gun still trained on Jacob. “You go there.”

Soweto writhed in fire as they drove away. Jacob reached for his mother’s hand in the front seat. It was still warm, the faint line of death barely crossed. But from this, he knew, there would be no return.

________________________________________________________________________________

Michelle was born and raised in South Africa where she received a B.A. in Theater Arts at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. She has lived in London, New York and the Midwest and currently calls Chicago home, where she recently graduated with an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Everyday Fiction, Hypertext Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and others. http://www.michellepretorius.com

 

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The Fear of King Canute

By Alison Lock

I am weary of their clamorous chatter, their irksome babble. I slip between the boulders and crouch as if to mesh a moment into rock, and there I sigh within the privacy of my stone throne. Hearing the echoed cries of my advisors, I chuckle at their disarray, their panic, as they search the caves below the cliffs, while others, wade through the slush-sand towards the shallows. They are calling, calling.

I creep over the bladder-wrack rocks, my feet press popping sacs, I hunker for a while to watch the creatures in a rock pool: crabs, jelly fish, tiny sea urchins, dog whelks, winkles, limpets; all existing within the hierarchy of a private briny world. And yet, these men, so astute, so sagacious, these men of courage, brain and brawn; they know less than a barnacle on a rock. They believe I have the power to halt the tide.

I shudder. A cold wave lashes at my legs.I leap onto dry rock but before I can re-compose I am exposed, ousted from my hide-away as the last rays of sun send streaks of jewel studded gold into the bronzing light.

My Queen, my dearest Emma, will be sailing from the coast of Normandy. Her pilgrimage has been long, but her mission has been twofold. Not only has she sought to visit the shrine of Our Lady but with my urging, she has secured the lands of her inheritance. And now, on her return she must again face the crossing of the sea, face her deepest fear.

Later, I lay on my couch as the ghost mists of night descend. I pray and beg for deliverance from the task ahead as I wait for the silver daggers of dawn. My guards are silent. Elevated on this mound of dune, I watch the stars through a triangle of canvas. I can just see the spray at the shoreline, how it is refracted in the slip-shine of the moon; how each wave delivers an epiphany of plight. Like a breath held before the rumbling ebb; there is fear in my heart as each slap wave draws further on the silt, gnawing at the edge of my Kingdom.

Like every slight of hand, this request, this trick, is almost imperceptible.

How can my Kingship be tested in this way? What greater warrior do they need?

Now, my subjects wish to secure a place for me among the Gods, or perhaps, they simply seek to make a fool of me. But my God is in his heaven to where my soul one day will rise. I know that my power on earth goes by His grace alone. I am not ‘Almighty’ as some would have it. For that I must command the seas and I know too well the force of nature is not the territory of man, never has been and never will be, not for anyone, peasant nor King.

King. That is a mighty word. It is one that I own and will not easily relinquish. I am King Cnut, King of Denmark, Norway, England, some of Sweden too; an Emperor before the gates of Christendom. Nevertheless, I am a mortal king and this very knowledge is my strength: never have I believed that I can rule more than land itself; not the birds in the sky, nor the fish in the sea. But my subjects have no such humility and now they are bent on testing my powers, my majesty.

Bardric, my loyal and trusted friend, spoke first of this concern.

“They request that you command the tide,” says he.

I laugh.

“They have taken you for a fool, Bardric,” I reply.

“I am a fool, your Majesty, it’s true,” he says, “but a fool that listens with his heart.”

“Ha, I believe you have lingered too long in this country of green spirits, witchery, and fairy craft,” I reply. “Perhaps it is time we find you a mission before you are subsumed in pagan lore.”

“Your Majesty, they will not leave the subject alone,” he continues, “not until your greatness has been proven.”

“Surely you are not taken in by these foreign lords?” I cry. “This piffle is merely set to undermine me.”

“There is talk, your Majesty…” he continues.

“Talk? Talk is talk! Is my power over many lands not proof enough that I am fit to be their King?”

“As their King, only you can decide.”

He is shrewd, there is no flicker of humour around his mouth.

“So, they wish for me to halt the course of the tide? Reverse its natural flow?”

Bardric is silent.

“The sea is a force of nature tuned by the stars, the planets and the shifting winds,” I declare. “Far greater than a single man, even one who is a King.”

But now, it has come to this. This challenge must be quelled. If I am to keep my crown I must prove my worth without losing their loyalty, or indeed, I will lose face.

They say that at the point of lowest tide, when the waxing of the seasons has reached its vernal peak, it is the time of Equinox. And it is also said by the gossip-mongers, that at first light, I, King Cnut, shall pit his power against the vastness of the world to claim the ultimate crown; King of the Seas.

For three moons now, the bards have sung their fine-teased lyrics, the jesters have provoked. The maids have tittle-tattled, the cooks rumoured, even my knights and squires can speak of little else. The time has almost come to deal with their absurdity.

But still I do not know what must be done. Perhaps there is no other way but to play their scheming game. I will not have the history books say that I was the fool who thought he could reverse the tide. No.

I look to heaven but does heaven look on me?

I call for my sword; iron that can be drawn from the earth, smelted in the pits of fire, hammered into a warrior’s sword. My answer will surely lie in the blade that has saved me on countless times. My right hand is adept, used to the wielding of this implement, controlled by the deftness of my wrist.

I withdraw the crafted blade from its sheath and as I do a small item drops to the ground, and, for a moment, it is lost on the intricate woven carpet. My hand reaches out, feels for the floor around my feet.

I hold up the coin to the light. ‘CNUT REX ANGLORU,’ it reads.

One penny: a keepsake, the first coin cut by the minter in London, given to me for luck, a present from my beloved Emma. The only word we have is of the outward journey. As arduous as ever, the vessel unsafe, damned with the blight of disease. The Abbess, her life-long companion, fell ill and died, but my beloved Emma survived. This loss of her childhood friend to the sea will have caused her much distress. And my poor Emma, she suffers so greatly from the sickness, a malady that affects even the sturdiest of sailors.

I look through the opening of the tent and see our Royal Encampment, that portion of my Kingdom’s land within arm’s length: a dune that is enclosed, canopied, hemmed by a ring of fluttering pennants. The invader lies beyond, waiting to intrude with watery glee. I was never like my father. Sweyn Forkbeard held no fear of the sea. On my first expedition, I knew nothing of the power of the ocean, but felt safe within the orbit of my father’s eye. We were drawn into the rough seas around the Islands of Orkney in our narrow long-ship just as a storm began. In between the flashes of lightning a mountain of sea appeared, erupting before our eyes, its toppling edge tipping us onto our side as we clung on, bound ourselves with ropes strapped to the hull, the masts, or to each other. Several men fell overboard and were lost. I believed we were about to drown as we tilted into the maw of a deep whirlpool, but just as we circled the outer ring, the force lessened, and with the might of those on board, we broke free of the jaws that threatened to swallow us.

I would never forget that ordeal. When, later on, I assembled my own fleet, I insisted that only the best, the strongest, the fastest, should be employed. I declared my fleet invincible: 22 sturdy long ships with sails for greater speed, 10000 men equipped with armour, shields and oars, provisions to last a year at sea.

Nevertheless, despite all precautions since; the incident at Orkney haunts my darkest dreams. And now, at the cusp of night and day, I sweat as if with fever despite the stillness of the air. The haunting sounds of the sea enter my tent and the camp is suffused with the base light of dawn. All armour is ready polished; limbless breastplates, shields, helmets, glint in the first risings of the sun as if in readiness for the great King of the Sea.

I hear a beat, the drum of time. My heart, quickening and rising in my chest. My throat constricts. I will fail, fall ill, or fall from grace; just at the moment of my testing. Am I the one who dares demean His power? What right have I to pit myself against His grace?

The beat of my heart is soon replaced with the rhythm of hooves.

“Your Majesty, Queen Emma arrives from France.” My servant’s voice breaks the dawn, a fanfare coincides with the rising of the sun.

My prayers are answered. Who but my beloved Emma knows better of the tempests of the sea? Who suffers more than her, whose fear is greater? And she, my brave Queen, has sailed the Channel between England and her homeland on the Norman coast. Now is not the time to tempt providence? I hold the fine edge of my sword to the light; its sheen is silvered as if fresh-drawn from the forger’s fire.

“Set my chair above the line of the tide… turned to face inland.”

 _______________________________________________________________

Alison Lock is a writer of short stories and poetry. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing (2011), and a collection of short stories, Above the Parapet (2013). She also works collaboratively with other artists, musicians, and visual artists. She has an MA in Literature Studies.

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A Question of Madness

By Shannon Selin

The white man on a roan horse did not, in his dusty appearance, differ from many who straggled into Nacogdoches on the trail from San Antonio de Béxar to Louisiana. American traders, vagabonds and adventurers were common in this corner of Texas, joining Spaniards, Frenchmen, Mexicans, Indians and a few free Negroes seeking to improve their fortunes. It was the man’s request that distinguished him.

“My good Sir, I deserve death and therefore desire that you should hang me.”

James Dill uncrumpled himself from the worn bench of his siesta and eyeballed the stranger. Nacogdoches was a place men came to escape the law, not to ask for it. Once a Spanish trading and smuggling center, the town had been gutted by royalist revenge during the Mexican revolution. Only now, with Mexican independence, were families trudging back to their tangled farms and sagging jacales. Some hundred souls, of the thousand who once lived there, scraped a living from the red-land valley. Dill’s slim hold as commandant and alcalde relied not on a garrison, but on his age, his standing as one of the first to return, and the grace of the Mexican friend who appointed him. And, of course, on Dill’s judgment, which in his mind had never failed him.

The man was young and slight. He had been riding hard; his breath was heavy. His eyes met Dill’s with a watery blue fever. Dill sniffed. There was no smell of whiskey.

“Why do you wish to be hung?”

“I have been into Mexico with my partner, trading. On our return, I murdered him, took his money and sunk his body in the Angelina River.”

“Did anybody see this murder?”

“Only God and all the saints and angels.”

“But no man witnessed the killing.”

“I saw it, though I no longer have claim to be a man.” He slumped as he said it.

“How did you kill him?”

“With my knife.”

There was no sign of injury on the man’s sunbaked skin, no stain of blood on his boots or loose clothing.

“Show me the knife.”

“It is in the river.”

“Show me the money.”

The man pulled out thirteen dollars and a handful of pesos, hardly worth the trouble of murder. The horse was an Indian one, marked with no brand. It wore a Spanish saddle. Dill checked the packs. They held pots and bedding, a rifle in a deerskin case, powder, shot and bundles of wool. There were no bars of silver, the usual trader’s haul.

“What is your name?”

“Such name as I had is lost.”

“What is the name of the man you say you killed?”

“He called himself Ben Lucky. I never knew his real name.”

“Where is his family?”

“He had none.”

“Where is your family?”

The man’s mouth twitched. “I have forsaken the ones who loved me.”

“Where are you going?”

The man blinked, as if the answer were obvious. “To hell.”

In making his way to Texas, Dill had wandered from Pennsylvania to New Orleans to Arkansas Post. He had been a frontier hunter, a farmer and a trader with the Nacono, Nasoni and Anadarko tribes. He had seen madness, both the kind a man is born with and the kind fate draws him into. This man had no hat. He would not be the first the sun had made crazy.

“Go away,” said Dill. “The heat has produced mischief in your brain. I will not listen to you.”

The man gripped Dill’s shoulders. “My mind feels an uncommon shock, but it has never had more equilibrium. I demand that justice be done to me, even as I did justice to poor Ben.”

He was shaking like the devil in a vessel of holy water. Dill twisted him off. “You have run mad. Do not trouble me.”

The man grabbed the rifle from the horse and pushed it toward Dill. “If you will not hang me, then shoot me. I do not wish to commit suicide, or yet to live.”

Dill waved him away. “You have suspended the operations of reason. Go from this place.” He went into his house and shut the door, leaving the man outside.

Helena was grinding corn, mashing it between the stones as expertly as any Mexican. She winced at her husband cutting off the breeze. By Fahrenheit’s thermometer the heat was over one hundred degrees. Poking a sweaty curl back under her kerchief, she opened the door a pinch and peered out. The man stood where Dill had left him, his back bent forward.

“What if he is a murderer?”

“Death comes soon enough. What sane man would hasten it? Providence has taken away his reason. He may recover it, or he may not. I cannot take the life of one who has confessed a crime of which there is no proof.”

“Well, if he did kill someone, Providence has given him the most clear reason in showing him what needs to be done.” Helena did not go to the creek for water until the man had left their door, and she kept her grandson James close by instead of letting him run with the other children in the pines.

The man plunked himself down in the town square, where he repeated his story to anyone who would listen. Juan Seguín heard the tale. He complained to José Mariano Sanches.

“I am very much afraid that this gentleman has murdered his companion. I do not believe it is just for him to evade the law.”

“Indeed,” said Sanches, “the culprit has made a confession and wishes to suffer for the breach. There should be no escape.”

“If he has committed murder, what picture is this for our alcalde, who screens him from the gallows and lets him loose to prey upon his fellow men? Is it not the law that murder should be punished by death?”

Sanches quoted words he had heard from a long ago priest. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

“He waves his rifle like a madman and asks men to shoot him. How is this safe for our families?”

“Madman or murderer, he is a danger to us all.”

“If I were alcalde and a man claiming to have killed someone came within my reach, I would apprehend the villain and lodge him in jail. The laws of our country would determine whether he was justified or not. If not, he would receive the punishment he merits.”

“That is what every man of honour ought to do.”

“But how can we expect justice to be done by a man who is slipped into an office which, by ignorance and lack of learning, he is unable to fill?” Seguín had only two horses and a house half the size of Dill’s, but he was proud of the education he had received in Béxar.

Sanches was a farmer from Laredo who, like Dill, did not know how to read or write. “It is character he lacks. He has the conceit of the Anglo-American.”

“I remember how he lied about being a Catholic, so the viceroy would let him stay. I was here in the spring of 1799, well before Dill came on the town.”

“Six months before,” said Sanches. “And I was here seven years before either of you.”

Joseph Durst, Dill’s son-in-law, was at the trading post, buying sugar and flour. When he collected James for the ride back to the farm, he said, “The townspeople do not feel safe with a murderer in the square.”

“A madman,” said Dill. “Who says that?”

“Juan Seguín.”

“Seguín is a jealous old fool. He will do me all the injury he can. I will not confine a man for being mad. Only if he wishes not to comply with the rules of government can I exempt him from the town.”

“They think he killed a man.”

“He is a lunatic. If he did what he says he did, with no one as witness, he could have got clear away to Natchitoches.”

“So you think he is guilty,” said Helena.

“I said no such thing.”

Two other Americans were fresh in town. William Dewees and Nicholas Dillard had got word that Moses Austin had received permission from the Mexican government to start a colony in Texas. They were heading back to Arkansas to make preparations to join him. Dill asked if they knew of a trader called Ben Lucky, or if they had heard of a murder on the Camino Real.

“Yes,” said Dewees, “we did hear of such a thing.”

“Where?” asked Dill, his excitement rising.

“From a man in the square.”

Dill went to the square as the sun’s orange tail swept the horizon. Indians packed up their hides and beans; a Spaniard tinkled his guitar; some Mexicans played monte. The man was laid out on the stoop of the church–long abandoned by priests–with a Caddo who liked to drink prodigious quantities of whiskey.

The man looked up in hope. “Sir, have you come to hang me?”

“I have not. You have caused a great deal of caviling and worry, and I want you to leave this town.”

The man struggled up. He could scarcely keep on his legs.

“I will leave, but on one condition.”

“Yes?”

“If you still disbelieve me, send some men with me. I will show them where I sunk my comrade.”

The man wet the ground through his trousers.

“You are mad, and now you are drunk besides.”

As Dill turned to walk away, the man started hollering out his wish for execution. Women peeked out their doors and men appeared on the verandas of Y’Barbo’s old stone house.

Dill took the man by the arm and led him stumbling out of the square. “In the morning, if you have not returned to reason, I will grant your condition. Then, if you are telling the truth, you can get the justice you desire.”

Helena gasped to see the man again on her porch. “You are the one who is crazy,” she said to her husband. “Why not put him in jail? Why bring him here to rob and murder us?”

“If I locked men up for drunkenness, the better part of the population would be confined.” Dill patted her broad hip. “He will not harm us. I have taken his rifle. And he will be gone as soon as the sun is up.”

Helena offered the man coffee and tortillas. He would take only water. “I am burned with regret. I long for death, as life is the only obstacle separating me from my just fate. But I am a coward. I cannot do it myself.” He reached for her hand. “Please, will you help me?” Helena pulled away.

Dill gave the man clean trousers and set a moss-filled mattress under the long eaves of the house. The man refused to lie down. “I dare not sleep, for fear of my dreams. I will keep awake as long as I can hold my eyes open.”

Dill had barely put out the candle when the man began to howl. Helena’s blood froze. Dill went out and asked the cause of the clamour.

The man apologized. “Frightful afflictions pursue me. I thought I saw Ben Lucky walking on the road and beckon to me.”

The Dills had just settled in their bed when they were once more startled by the man’s cry.

Again the man apologized. “I thought blood was falling on my head.” He began to roam about the porch, muttering.

Helena did not sleep. By morning she agreed with her husband that the man was crazy.

The man was, at least, sober. “Sir, I will leave now, if you will hold up your end of the bargain.”

Dill rounded up five strong men to accompany his charge. They followed the Camino Real about twenty miles northwest, to where the trail met the Angelina River. The man then led them south, across dry river and creek-bottom land, to a point thick with walnut trees and poplars.

“It is here that I sunk Ben Lucky.”

“Are you sure?”

“How could I forget?”

The river, which had been an overflowing torrent in the spring, had shrunk to a lazy brown stream. Two of the men took off their clothes and entered the water. They found the swollen body within the hour, caught on a log. They slung it over a mule and returned to Nacogdoches.

Dill fixed a rope upon a tree behind the old stone house and drew up a bench underneath. He called a few persons together to witness the scene. More came without being invited. Some gave the condemned man commissions for the other world.

As the man beheld the noose, he smiled. “God guard you many years,” he said to Dill.

He mounted the bench and put his neck through the loop.

Dill kicked the bench.

As they walked back to the house, Helena said, “I must say that I have never seen a man so happy to be hung. It goes to show that even in the most unusual of circumstances the old proverb is right: murder will out.”

Dill said, “It goes to show that I was right. Even as a murderer, the man was mad.”

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Shannon Selin lives in Vancouver, Canada. Her novel, Napoleon in America, imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com, where you can also read more of her short stories.

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