Lone Star Stories
Speculative Fiction and Poetry
The Hangman Isn't Hanging
by Jay Lake
The Dunes south of the San Luís Valley is a death trap for white man and red alike. Only the hardyest and wiliest Adventurers can trade across them sands. Not Mormon nor Texian nor even them Russian bastards can track a man there neither. Only a right smart Injun or a Chinee witch doctor can take you down there. And them monsters in the sky, what goes without saying. But cross La Veta pass and there's the Wet Mountain valley, prettiest country God ever laid His finger on.
-- Journal of Jed "Spade" Wolters, mountain man, ca. 1850
Courtesy of the Founders' Collection of the Denver Temple Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Red Eyes Parker was leading a string of pack ponies two days north of the Burrista trading post at the far south end of the Wet Mountain Valley when they began to spook. Loaded down with ironwork and kitchenware, the ponies were louder than mission bells.
Parker cursed inventively in a mixture of French, Spanish and Ute. He halted to calm them one by one, stroking the muzzle of each pony and whispering the names of their mothers. Then he scanned the scrubby pines that surrounded the trail. There wasn't much underbrush but the lay of the land was sufficiently rough to hide an army of Americanos, Mormonistas or worse.
Eyes closed and mouth open he breathed deep. His ears brought him nothing. There should have been mountain bluebirds, scrub jays, woodpeckers -- this was not a quiet forest. His nose brought him...
A mix of rot and blood and cold bone. Something dead or dying.
It was the "perhaps" that worried him.
Reluctantly, Parker hopped off of his horse Poquito, telling the mount to watch over the ponies. He took his axe and his crutch and followed the odor. Faint stirrings of breeze led him stumping up an embankment away from the pony line to a point where the smell was much stronger. He looked down, studying a ravine which opened on the far side of the ridge.
There was an angel amid the stones at the bottom. The black of its skin and wings blended with the shadows around it. Parker's hand flexed for his absent musket before he realized the creature was folded into an impossible position down there.
Angels could be slain. It had been done. But he'd never heard tell of someone fighting one of the white God's creatures to a standstill and then wedging it into a crack in the earth to die.
The angel's head tilted upward. Even in such terminal pain its face held an impossible beauty, dangerous as flame, sterile as stone. Its eyes were gold beneath a mountain stream. "Attanaskiamie," the angel said in the secret language of Parker's medicine lodge. Slay me.
He would have tried to do just that, except the asking made him suspicious. Not that he was sure he could have killed it regardless.
"Esas palabras no son las tuyas a utilizar," Parker said. "Usted los ha robado de mis pensamientos." The angel had stolen the words of his secret language from his thoughts. They were said to have many fantastic powers.
It answered him in some rippling tongue Parker had never before heard. A cold gust came from downhill, snow chilled air fleeing the towering Sangre de Cristo range just to the west, unseasonable but matching the feeling in Parker's heart.
He decided he would not kill it. "Debo matarle, pero no."
"Please." It spoke English now.
"You want to die?" Parker asked in the same language. He hated speaking the Americano tongue. "I take you to town, the whites kill you good." There was years' worth of vengeance to be taken upon one of the feathered warriors.
The angel settled into the shadow it seemed to make for itself and glared at him. Parker figured someone had broken its back, because nothing below the neck seemed to move. Only that head and those glaring eyes now settling behind narrow lids.
He scrambled back down to his ponies and unloaded Little Dog. Little Dog was his sturdiest beast, an animal of small imagination even for a horse. Parker bent and whispered in her ear, saying the name of the pony's mother and grandmothers and promising sweet clover. "Me disculpo por esta carga que usted debe llevar," he told the pony, apologizing for the burden.
Parker left his door hinges and handles in a pile under a tree blazed with his mark, then led Little Dog up the slope, carrying a rope in his crutch hand. Little Dog did not like the scent of the angel, but she was too lazy to bolt. He looped her lead on a pine branch, then rigged the rope around the tree's bole.
The angel's eyes did not flicker open again until Parker stood above it at the bottom of the ravine. It took all his courage to brace his legs wide above such a deadly enemy in repose, right foot on stone, left stump painful on mud, but not even an angel could fight with its back bent so far and wedged so deep in the earth. Parker stared into the cold gold of the angel's gaze for a moment before looping the rope awkwardly around one shoulder. He had to force the hemp between the arm muscles and the great black wing folded beneath them.
Parker would not dare to pass the rope behind the angel's head. Not while it still could move its jaws. They did not exchange a word the whole time he was down in the ravine.
After he'd finished tying off the rope, Parker scrambled back out and looped the other end around a set of branches to gain the leverage. Not trusting the pony to this work on the uncertain ground, he set his own back into it. The angel's weight combined with the grip of the earth where it had been thrust made for a terrible strain. Parker leaned into the rope and pulled harder.
The line began to crackle before the angel pulled loose. It sounded as if the earth herself had spat the creature out. Parker worked quickly to haul the angel up. It brought its dying stench with it, so strong once freed from the soil that he gagged. The angel continued to stare at him as he folded its body over Little Dog's blanketed back, until the golden eyes were lost to his sight beneath the curve of the pony's belly.
"May you have the joy of the view," Parker said savagely. Every word in English was like a curse -- that was good enough for the angel.
Little Dog whimpered her small-minded fear but she did not throw the burden. The rest of the ponies shuffled away from her when Parker regained the trail, so he had to lengthen their lead considerably and kept Little Dog close to Poquito. The horse hated the smell too, but was more loyal and better-trained than the pack ponies.
"They will be glad of you at the mines," he told the angel.
Parker rode into Silvercliff with the rising moon. It was a white man's town, settled by veterans of Clark's Army leavened with assorted refugees from the surrounding white nations, but Silvercliff heeded the counsel of the people's lodges. They dug holes in the ground no self-respecting man would enter and grubbed there for the silver that had lent the town its name.
Mines. Only a white man would imagine such a way to rape the earth, making a victim of both himself and his mother.
But white men paid well for the iron goods Parker brought. Their silver in turn served his lodge. A warrior could not fight on one foot, and he had not had the honor to die the day the other had been taken from him. This miserable tradesman's living was what was left to Red Eyes.
Silvercliff had only one saloon. The building's porch posts were marked with medicine bags warning warriors away from the white man's vices, and a notice from the regional adjutant of Clark's Army amounting to the same thing for those still under arms. Though he was no longer a warrior, Parker did not spend time within, either. He preferred a fire under the open stars and a pipe in his hand.
Tonight was different.
Parker left Poquito and the pack string hobbled in the meadow where he usually camped and led Little Dog to the saloon. He tied the pony out front, where the white man's horses shied and screamed at the angel's scent. His stump burned with pain. By the time Parker pushed through the saloon's batwing doors the strange tinkling music had stopped and white men were on their feet with hands upon their pistols.
"Good evening, Red Eyes," said Matteo Bauchs, who happened to be close to the door. Bauchs ran the assay and sometimes traded Parker silver dust and nuggets for more portable ingots. "Don't see one of yours in here often."
"Mister Bauchs," Parker replied. He tried to keep his voice polite.
"Don't see a lot of them Indians on the hop like that," shouted someone from the back.
"I reckon Red Eyes here could feed you your asshole, Barney, even with a foot gone missing," said Bauchs without turning around. "You might ought to shut up so's we can hear what the man came in here to say."
Parker looked around the room. He marked the loudmouth Barney for later. "I have someone outside needs hanging. White man's justice."
Bauchs' eyes narrowed. "With respect, since when have your folk come to us for justice? The people's lodges take care of their own."
"Come see," said Parker, the turned to limp down the three steps and stand by Little Dog.
Bauchs and the others followed him out in a roar of excited conversation that almost immediately vanished. There was a sort of shuffling noise from the group as each fought not to be the first down the steps, accompanied by the sharp sweaty smell of fear. Bauchs pushed through and approached the angel. He bent down with his hands upon his knees.
"Damn, Red Eyes. You got quite a catch here. But I'm afraid justice has already been done on this feathered bastard."
White men had no more use than the people did for angels. God's great feathered demons hunted indiscriminately across the West in pursuit of the Chosen Ones -- or anything else that caught their eye. Like deadly magpies they could be counted upon to raid small settlements or unprotected travelers. Even the Mormonistas, those great God-botherers, could not control their Lord's hosts.
"He is not dead yet," said Parker.
The angel opened its eyes and a brilliant radiance flooded the churned mud beneath Little Dog's belly. Smoke rose where the light touched the earth. Parker was very glad he had not been in the path of that gaze.
No one else would touch the angel so Parker and Bauchs cut it free and laid it out on the billiards table inside the saloon. Face down, for fear of the eyes. Leaving a few armed men in the saloon to watch over their prisoner, a town meeting convened in the street. Someone had the kindness to bring Parker a chair.
He hated them for it, and himself for needing the chair, but still he sat amid a milling crowd of angry white men. Somehow they expected him to speak for his lodge, his tribe and all the people, as if one raindrop could speak for the storm.
"I will not kill it," Parker repeated. He had said those words so often these past hours he'd lost count. Somehow the whites kept coming back to making the angel his problem. "It has stolen words from me already. It speaks the Americano tongue. The problem is yours."
"Got me a question," Barney shouted. He hadn't said much through the course of evening. Despite his feelings against the man, Parker hoped the talk would run down a new trail now.
"Go ahead," said Bauchs.
"Here we are all set on killing that thing. Now, I know it needs killing, angels are a plague upon the land, but who the damnation busted it up in the first place? You ever hear tell of anyone could do such a thing? I mean, it's one thing to shoot the hell out of one of them feathered rats. But break its spine and wedge it down into the ground. That's some powerful doing. Why ain't we afraid of whatever done that?"
That was a very good question. Parker wished he'd thought of it himself.
"Well, and who the hell did it?" said someone else.
Barney smiled. "Ask the damned angel."
"No," said Parker, surprising himself. "Just make an end to it."
"The hangman isn't hanging," Bauchs said. "No one here has the nerve to touch that thing." He put his hands up as the men of the town muttered angrily. "I ain't saying you all are cowards. It's just too much to ask. Who would put the rope around its neck?"
"The Indian there did it once," said Barney. "He can do it again."
Parker contemplated killing Barney in his bed later, but he didn't want to lose the Silvercliff trade. "No."
"So who hurt it?" Bauchs said to Parker.
Looking up from his chair Parker shrugged. It was a white man's gesture. He was beginning to regret his decision to bring the angel in to town. He should have killed it, or left it to die in that hole. "Perhaps your God punishes His own."
"He don't work that way."
"His angels do."
Bauchs thought about that a moment. "Alrightie," he announced. "Here's what we'll do. Me and Red Eyes and Barney here are going to question the angel. Then Barney can put a silver bullet in its head."
"Not on my billiards table!" roared a fat man Parker didn't know.
"You going to come move it for me, Otis?" asked Bauchs in a sweet voice.
Everybody else laughed, nervous and glad to be free of the problem. Except Barney, who stared at Parker with violence in his eyes, and Bauchs who stared at the sky as if expecting a flight of whole-bodied angels to come to the rescue of their stricken comrade-in-arms.
They should hang it with their prayer books in their hands, thought Parker. This is a messenger of their God.
The angel hadn't moved at all from where they'd left it on the billiards table. Parker wasn't sure how far it could bend its neck, but he distinctly recalled the creature looking up at him from the ravine. He was careful to pick a seat out of any possible line of sight. That didn't protect him from the butchering grounds smell, unfortunately.
"Sea cuidadoso," he told Bauchs. Then, "Have a care." Parker spared no portion of his thoughts for Barney.
Bauchs nodded at Parker. He spread his legs to bend down with his hands on his knees and study the side of the angel's head. "I know you can hear me," Bauchs said loudly after a few moments. "What did this to you?"
The angel did not react at all, though the great black pinions fluttered slightly in an errant cool breeze that seemed to have no source.
The silver assayer tried again. "There's no love between your kind and us. But I can kill you quick and clean, or I can leave you on Otis' billiard table until you starve or die of thirst or whatever."
"I will not die unless you kill me," the angel said. Its voice was muffled by the table.
The true horror of the angel's fate dawned on Parker. Its tormentor had left it to rot out there in the forest. He could imagine an immortal creature broken beyond repair jammed down in a ravine until its vision was clouded by rotting pine needles. Then company with the worms and beetles for ever as the soil settled over it, season by endless season.
"Trade me your death for the knowledge of who did this to you," Bauchs said.
"There was none of the Nephilim left in the land of the children of Israel," the angel said. Its voice was clearer, stronger. "He Is Who He Is has sent them back to the world."
"Nephilim?" asked Bauchs.
"A tribe in the Good Book," Barney snapped with another glare at Parker. "This Indian done brought us a crazy angel."
Parker palmed his throwing knife from the seam in his buckskin trousers. "The angel is no more crazy than anything else in your Bible."
The angel groaned. "The Nephilim protect the Chosen. Now kill me."
Barney took a silver bullet from a pouch on his belt and loaded it into his revolver. Parker trusted the sullen white man even less than usual, but he wasn't sure what Barney would do with Bauchs watching.
"Are these here Nephilim coming for us?" the silver assayer asked.
The angel's breath shuddered -- a rattle of fear and pain, perhaps. "All are marked."
Men were shouting outside, Parker realized.
Bauchs nodded at Barney then headed for the door. Parker stayed to see what Barney would do next. He needed to be there for the angel's end. Outside the shouting grew louder, changed to screaming punctuated by gunshots.
The Nephilim coming to finish their work on the angel, Parker figured.
Barney braced his pistol toward the angel's head. Parker waited but the white man did not shoot. The saloon doors banged behind Bauchs as the horses began to scream. Barney swung the pistol to bear on Parker.
"It's a blasphemy, Red Eyes," he said. "What you done to this sweet messenger of the Lord." Sweat streamed down Barney's face. "Some day you Indians will know your place. Every angel's a revelation."
Parker began to nod slowly, then threw himself backward. The throwing knife went high to stab Barney in the throat. Barney's pistol fired as he collapsed, but Parker did not feel the bullet.
A moment later he pulled himself to his feet. There was a full-scale battle going on outside. Parker spared a sad thought for Little Dog hobbled in the midst of the killing, then leaned close to the angel. "Todavía dado de los hombres alrededor de usted," he whispered. Still men died around the angel. "Asesino." Killer.
"I am as God made me," the angel said. "You would not curse the wind for being cold."
Parker took the pistol from Barney's spasming hands. The white man yet lived but was slowly choking to death from the blood pouring down the inside of his throat. Parker opened a pouch at Barney's belt and found two more silver bullets.
"Blessed by your priests, yes?" He smiled at Barney as he loaded the next two bullets into the pistol. "I am a stupid savage. What do I know of blessings?" Then Parker leaned close to the angel. "I do not do this for myself." He prodded the pistol to the back of its head just where the skull curved away from the neck. "I do not do this for Bauchs or this town. You should have justice, but their hangman is not hanging." He thought of the angel, interred motionless and living forever beneath the soil. "The white men will not give you justice. I give you mercy."
The angel's body slid forward with the shot. Parker watched as the black of its skin and feathers faded to gray. The gray in turn dissolved to motes. Then like fire ash on a summer wind the angel was gone. A flattened bullet lay atop a stain in the billiards table. It had taken its reek with it.
Outside things had fallen quiet. Had the racket stopped with the death of the angel? Parker cocked the pistol and limped to the door to see who or what else he might need to kill. Nephilim, white men, his horse, or even himself, it did not matter so much to him.
About the Author:
A fifth-generation Texan now transplanted
to the Pacific Northwest, Jay Lake is the 2004 Campbell Award winner. His work
appears in major markets worldwide, as well as his collections Dogs in the
Moonlight, American Sorrows and Greetings From Lake Wu. This
story is part of his novel in progress, Original Destiny, Manifest Sin.
Jay can be reached through his web site.
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