Published on Friday, September 16, 2011
The Way of All Flesh
By Joseph Grant
"What do ya think they're fixin' to do with us, Paddy?" The kid winced and held his bruised ribs.
"Don't worry kid, I'll get us outta this."
"Aw, go on, don't be stupid and tell the kid the truth."
"Shut up, Monahan." Paddy spat. "We ain't had it yet. We've still got luck on our side."
"Luck? Whaddya mean luck? The great Paddy O'Reilly, what a bunch of malarkey."
"Shut yer mouth, Monahan. Show some respect." The kid hollered. "This here's the greatest gun in the West."
"When he's dry."
"Ya heard him, sew it shut."
"Watch yar tongue. Mr. O'Reilly's a great man."
"Oh, yeah? Take a good look around you." Monahan said and swept his bruised arm slowly across the holding cell. It was carved from the face of a limestone cave with a mortar wall on the outside and bars on a lone window. A large metal door with a smaller barred window at the top was the only means of egress. "Is this what a great man does? Get captured?"
"A good run is better than a bad stand." Paddy said.
The kid nodded glumly. "I don't like it in here. I feel all boxed in."
"You're a miner, for all get out!"
"This I know but it doesn't mean I have to like it." The kid said in a surly manner.
"Don't listen to him, lad. Have I ever let you down before?" Paddy said and messed up the dirty blonde hair of his friend. The kid smiled in admiration. "Well, don't yar be worryin', I ain't about to let us meet our Maker."
"But they're gonna hang us for sure." Murphy interjected. "As sure as the sun come up, we be all dead men."
"Come here! Just shut yar mouths and let's try to get some shut-eye or we'll all be dead-tired dead men." Paddy spat as the cell fell quiet.
Outside in the warm night air of Willow Creek, the small desert town rested uneasily. While it was true that four of the five men who were leaders in the Walamash Mine Uprising were behind bars, the fifth Irishman remained at large.
Pat Ryan was perhaps the most feared gunslinger out of all desperadoes that ever raised a firearm. O'Reilly had learned the craft of killing an outlaw at the feet of the great man. Before O'Reilly was old enough to handle the weight of Colt 45 Peacemaker, Ryan was letting his own six shooters tell the tale of what would eventually become one of the legendary stories in the West.
It had been Ryan who thought of working at the mines, establishing camaraderie with other Irish and Mexican and Chinese who labored in the mines and slowly begin the process of promulgating an uprising among the immigrants and in the end, blackmail the owners of the mine into quelling the unrest. It had made Ryan a prosperous man and it had worked in Nevada City and Beaver Creek and by the time Paddy and his fellow mates joined Ryan, his racket was very soon making them all a tidy little profit.
They would move on at the behest of the mine owners and usually the law or as it had panned out in the case of Silver Falls, a lynch mob, but never had things gone as awry as they had in Willow Springs.
True to plan, the four men were to meet with the mine operators in the back room of the Last Chance Saloon to mediate the impending strike, but one of the owners had gotten wind of the scam via a letter from his brother who owned a share in the mine back at Beaver Creek. The man had expressly written his brother to be on the look out for any men who possessed the rare ability to read and write, when most miners were capable of one or the other but never both and even rarer still was the thought of an Irish cowboy.
In a typical Irish-luck manner, Pat Ryan had awoken late after spending a tiresome evening with a good-time showgirl and upon hearing a cacophony of shots floors below him and most likely remembering the shenanigans of Silver Falls, shimmied down a drain pipe and high-tailed it out of town by the fastest means possible, the Sheriff's prized Appaloosa. In more typical Irish luck, the other four were captured and slightly roughed up in case they had any ideas of running and were thus, brought to justice.
"Do ya figure Mr. Ryan will be back?" The kid asked impatiently.
"Kid, Ryan's long gone and he won't be back for the like of us lot." Murphy sputtered.
"He'll be back. If there's one thing about Ryan, he's a right and loyal lad." O'Reilly said.
"Stop fillin' the kid's head with malarkey." Monahan cut him. "Pat Ryan's long gone."
"I said get some shut-eye!" O'Reilly spoke up as a strange plunking and banging noise could be heard in the distance.
"What's 'at?" The kid asked.
"Sounds like wood bein' dropped." Murphy shrugged.
"Wood? What're yar supposin' fer?" Monahan asked.
"They're building our gallows." Murphy smiled.
"What?" The kid asked.
"Save yar strength kid. You're gonna need it when they hang yar." Murphy spat.
"Stop frightening the lad." O'Reilly interjected. "Not gonna do us any a bit o' good."
"I'm just tryin' to steer him right, let him know to make things right with the good Lord."
"Ay, may be true, but when're yar been a religious lot?" Monahan joked.
"Since we're fixin' to die in the next couple a days, I figure." Murphy smiled. "Lad, are yar gonna be eatin' yar soda bread?"
"This?" The kid said and threw it at him. "Have it. It's as solid as Newgrange."
"And a fine thing to feed us, some Civil War hardtack." O'Reilly shook his head. "Do they think we Irish have teeth o' stone?"
"Will ya listen to that?" The kid said as the hammering and sawing rose into an almost deafening crescendo. "How do they expect us to sleep, for crissakes?"
"Now, Monahan and Murphy." O'Reilly used the noise to talk to both men without the kid hearing on the other side of the cell. "Why do ya have to be rilin' the kid up like that?"
"The kid should know. We all should make peace with our Maker." Monahan reasoned.
"Pardon me, Mr. Monahan, but yar maker is placed a wee bit lower than mine. I'm a righteous man compared to yar."
"Paddy, we've known each other for over twenty years. Yar breakin' me Irish heart." He kidded him. "Yar no statue kisser. Cut out the blarney. Yar know as well as I we're dead men."
"Ay, I do, but we mustn't let the kid know." O'Reilly said. "Fer me, Jack. I promised his mother I'd look after him."
"And a fine job ya done."
Ay, no need to remind me." O'Reilly nodded. "I know me own Judgment Day is comin'. But fer me, don't let the kid be any wiser."
"Agreed, me friend." Monahan acquiesced.
Murphy nodded. "Tell me this, Mr. O'Reilly. What do you think the odds are of Mr. Ryan comin' back and bustin' us out o' this grotty bog?"
"I think there's more of a chance of the snakes comin' outta yar arse and bein' driven back into Ireland than Ryan comin' back fer us lot."
"Ay, 'tis probably true." O'Reilly chuckled.
The morning light revealed what O'Reilly had deduced only to be too true. A platform was being constructed outside for their hanging.
"Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the Holy Martyrs!" Murphy said wearily. "Would ya get a look at that?"
"Keep yar voice down, you'll wake the others." O'Reilly shushed him.
"Ay, a helluva sight." Murphy nodded and rubbed the salt and pepper stubble on his chin.
"You don't think that's fer someone else, do ya?"
"No, I don't suppose that's for someone else!" Murphy mocked him. "But ya know what I wonder?"
"What is that, Bertram?"
"What happened to innocent until proven guilty?" Murphy said. "Doesn't that count for anything?"
O'Reilly gave him a hard look. "That's only fer Americans, ya arse. Us Irish get to hang for free."
"You see Mr. Ryan?" The kid asked. "Ay, it's cold this mornin'."
"I don't think he's comin', lad." O'Malley spoke up as O'Reilly shot him a look. "Well, it's true, the boy's got a right to know."
"Ay." O'Reilly conceded and sighed, his breath coming out frostily in the dank surroundings.
"What're ya both sayin'?" The young man said and looked around uneasily. "It's a bleedin' lie."
"I wish it were." O'Reilly said with a forlorn expression. "I'm afraid I failed ya. I failed yar mother, too, may she find it in her heart to forgive me." He said as another loud crash came from just outside the cell bars.
"Ryan's probably drunker than a bishop, right about now." Murphy joked. "Probably down in Mexico. Did any of yar see that girl he was with? A face like a plate of mortal sins, I tell yar." Murphy said as the men laughed. "What ya got there, kid?"
"Quiet, will ya." The kid said and motioned just outside the cell window.
"Look at the kid, will ya?" Monahan poked O'Reilly. "He's lost his mind."
"There's a wee bird right outside the window." He said and slowly moved a crumb from the soda cracker towards the bird. "Here ya go." He looked back at his cellmates with a smile. "Look at the poor devil, he must be hungry. He come right up to me hand, he did."
"All I'm sayin', O'Reilly..." Murphy said and looked at the kid who now had the bird on his forefinger with a look of amazement and guided the bird slowly into the cell with a smile. "Forget that damned bird. Here, lad, give it to me. I'll wring its pretty little neck."
"No!" The kid said and drew the bird closer.
"Catch him, lads!" Murphy shot up, startling the bird to flight. This in turn, made the men jump around the cell like madmen, intent on catching the starling, which was much too fast for them and flew beyond their leaping grasps until it flew onto the window bars again. "Grab it, kid! We'll eat like Catholics for our last supper!" He roared as the kid shooed the bird out the window and watched it fly away.
The bird flew across the courtyard over the wooden scaffold where the men were testing the drop away platform again and again with sandbags and finally, the starling landed on the window sill where there were a group of men seated around a large desk.
"Now, Mayor Connelly, these men are certainly a menace to our town, but they have done no wrong."
"Now, now, Tom, let's not be hasty. These men have a long history of breaking the law in other towns."
"Let's not forget what they did to my brother in Beaver Creek." The mine owner MacDougal reminded them.
"Pat, please, let me handle this."
"Okay, Mr. Mayor..." The man blotted at his forehead with his silken handkerchief. "But may I remind you, Sheriff Longhorn that these men bilked my brother out of a large sum of money and it almost bankrupted him and Beaver Creek."
"The Mayor dutifully reminded me of that already before you got here."
"The coach was late on account of savages."
Longhorn waved him off.
"When are you going to do something that menace?"
"Could we please keep on one calamity at a time, Pat?" The Mayor asked. "I told you I would take care of that."
"The Navajo are a peaceful people. All they did was surround your coach to try and sell you beads and dolls like they do with all the travelers. You're lucky it's not like the old days." The Sheriff smiled at the Mayor.
"But still, I was surrounded by them."
"Pat, please. I'm sorry, Tom." He chided the man and turned back to the Mayor.
"I was saying that I don't see any truth to the matter that they broke the law. The only crime they committed was back in Beaver Creek and I'm afraid that's out of my jurisdiction. Take it up with your brother and arrange a posse to come over and pick them up if you feel so strongly about it. I wash my hands."
"My brother doesn't want to incur the wrath of Ryan and his mob. We're a peaceful people. I just want justice."
"And all I want is my horse back." The Sheriff countered.
"May I remind you, Sheriff, it is your duty to render justice unto the guilty and these men are guilty."
"Mayor, you've no need to tell me how to do my damned job." Longhorn groused. "But these men have not even had a trial yet."
"Come on, Sheriff, these men are clearly guilty. They're shanty Irish." He smiled. "If they're guilty of anything, they're guilty of that."
"Tom, you know as well as I do that being Irish is not a crime or they'd hang half of me and all of you!"
"Sheriff, you and I are different than they are."
"Not really." Longhorn said and noticed a bird at the window jumping about and smiled. His smile faded as he caught sight of the mine owner staring at him.
"May I remind you, Sheriff that the elections are coming up and the Mayor and I are both counting on you to do the right thing?"
"And hanging innocent men is the right thing?"
"You're missing the point, Bill." The Mayor leaned in. "You either hang them or get hung out to dry come Election Day. Pat and his family are very generous when it comes to buying drinks down at the Last Chance Saloon before Election Day."
"You want to find someone else for this measly post, be my guest, Tom."
"Bill, please, it's not what I'm saying." The Mayor pleaded. "We have to take care of our own is all I'm saying. We can't let the rabble run the town. Once we lose the Irish vote, the very Irish who are our own brethren, not those off the potato farm, I fear what will happen if we lose control of the Mexicans and Chinee."
"We need to restore order, no doubt about that, gentlemen. Remember what happened in Walabash? A thousand of the Mexican and Chinee hordes, all armed to the teeth, drunk on rotgut and opium, impervious to the law and its guns." The mine owner shuddered. "They pistol-whipped my poor brother Bernard senseless."
"You poor brother Bernard is senseless." Longhorn corrected him. "And there were no hordes, MacDougal. You forget, they called a bunch of us from over here and Quinn County to help. There were thirty at best and they were poorly armed with shovels and a few pickaxes or a gun dropped by the Pinkertons that ran off the yellow bellies. They had been half-worked to death and were starved. All they were asking for was an honest day's wages for an honest day's work. They were hardly able to put up a fight and it was put down pretty quickly, as I recall."
"Yes, but there was an uprising and we don't want one here. Lord knows Ryan is probably on his way back with a militia of Irishmen."
"I am opposed to hanging these men, but if it will get me out of this office, conversation and into cooler air, then so be it."
"Then it's decided." The Mayor said ecstatically and donned his gloves and hat.
"Don't forget one of those innocent men, as you call them, is guilty of horse swindling." MacDougal reminded him.
"I'm still not at ease in hanging the four who are not." Longhorn said sternly.
"You'll see who's right on Election Day." MacDougal promised him.
"Bill, in politics one needs to be prudent and think of themselves. I won't be in this office forever. It's only a two-term job."
"I'm well-aware you want to warm the governor's chair."
"I don't know about that..." The Mayor smiled. "...but you and I want to be both remembered as the men who brought honor and decency to this town and created a place where the white man can live without fear of the swarthy races invading their midst and a town where we can live in Christian peace and harmony with our fellow man. You too could be elected mayor if you play your cards right." The Mayor nodded to the miner.
"May God have mercy on us all." Longhorn said and screeched his chair along the worn wooden floor. Upon hearing the noise, the bird hopped off the windowsill and flew away across the courtyard, over where children were running up and down the wooden staircase of the scaffold that led to the gallows. They had been brought there on a school outing by their headmaster. The bird flew to holding pen where the condemned men were being kept and to the nice man who had fed him.
"Saints preserve us, ya ain't listenin'. All I'm sayin' is we don't have to worry until they stop hammerin' and nailin'!"
"Will ya look at that, then?" The kid said as the bird flew back.
"Careful, son. We can have a feast if we're quick about it!" Murphy spat.
"Meal time, Señors." The guard said and unlocked the door. "No rapido moves."
The kid smiled at the guard, a Mexican boy not much older than himself. He treated them fairly and always brought them extra food or water. The kid spoke up.
"We get a last request, don't we?"
"Si, Señor, esta true." He nodded.
"Well, can you look after him for me?" The kid said and held out his hand half-open. "The others want to eat him. I want him to live."
"Si, Señor. I will give him a good casa. I will take him to my abuelita." He smiled and put the bird beneath a serving bowl on the tray.
"Even in injustice there are good deeds." The kid smiled. "Gracias."
True to Irish luck, when their last day dawned, the kid and Murphy were sick with dysentery from the well water and did not so much walk to the gallows as much as they were dragged. It was not the usual after-Church fare for those who attended such ill-fated things and in a way it was pathetic that two of the four were too sick to stand but were held up by volunteers who wanted frontier justice and as the noose was place around each man's innocent neck, some mothers covered their children's eye or even turned the child around so as not to see the execution outright, lest they be witness to the death of an innocent man.
"Do you have any last words you would like to say?" Longhorn asked.
Paddy O'Reilly spoke first. "What kind of free country hangs the innocent? I will avenge my death; of that yar can be certain!"
Longhorn moved to Murphy who was too ill to stand and had to be held upright, lest he be hung by his knees. Murphy shook his head weakly, intimating that death would be an improvement over his current state.
Monahan's turn came next and he spoke long about the town and how they were committing a cowardly and barbarous act and when he was finished, he promised those watching the display, as if they'd turned out to watch Henry V: "As the good Lord is me witness, I curse the day I ever laid foot in this devil's town. May yar mines dry up, yar crops wither, yar women barren and yar all go to blazes fer whatcha done here today."
"May God have mercy on you." Longhorn objected.
"No, sir. May God have mercy on yar." Monahan spat.
"I'm scared, Mr. Monahan." The kid muttered.
"Don't ya be. For we are goin' the way of all flesh. All men will travel the road afore yar. He who lives is bound to die."
The Sheriff went to the boy. "Son, do you have any last words?"
"I... I am an innocent man." The kid said. "If Pat Ryan were here, he could prove I done nothin' wrong, he could prove it fer all of us."
The Sheriff sighed as he tightened up the last of the eight turned nooses. "Son, Pat Ryan ain't a comin'. I pulled his body out of the gulch this morning. Pat Ryan's dead."
The kid unleashed such a guttural cry of despair that many would still talk about it years after the fact as one of the most heart-wrenching moments of a young man coming to terms with his own mortality. Longhorn himself winced and clapped three times to the men at the bottom of the platform to pull the levers and the town's search for justice was finally appeased but never fully attained.
Some of the more righteous called out for the Irishmen to be cut loose after they struggled under their own weight in torment, their eyes bugging and their tongues thrust out of their mouths in response to the strangulation of their esophagus. A few women fainted, at having never been to a hanging before and some even became physically ill at the sight of the men, especially the two with dysentery evacuating their bowels as a grim consequence.
The hanging, far from being the grand spectacle many fondly remembered, was quickly deconstructed with the Sheriff, the Mayor and the mine owner shuttling the assembled dignitaries from the creaking viewing platform and the crowd from in front of the gallows in less than a cordial manner. Some were so shaken as to be heard muttering about banning such a barbaric event from taking place in their law-abiding and Christian town ever again.
With the snap of the accused necks still fresh in their minds, the Sheriff, Mayor and mine owner and his brother were back in Longhorn's office hoisting a celebratory toast in the air and smoking cigars, speaking about their political futures and even admitted that while their system of justice might have been a bit too brutal for a group who in reality did nothing more than stage a failed uprising and take the miner owners for a pittance of their actual worth, did in fact work. It would show future would be criminals that Willow Springs was tough on crime, no matter how inconsequential and thus, the Mayor predicted on his second Scotch: "Keep our town hearty and hale, within the good Christian doctrine in which our country was founded." All agreed and clinked their glasses one after the other as a rap was heard upon the door.
"Who is it?" Longhorn growled with a cigar clenched between his teeth.
There was no answer.
"I said, who is it?" Longhorn raised his voice as the men exchanged confused glances.
"Damn it to Hell!" Longhorn roared. "Who in the hell is it?"
"Pat Ryan." Came the raspy answer as the door slowly opened. "And I've brought some friends o' mine."
Joseph Grant's short stories have been published in over 200 literary reviews such as Byline, New Authors Journal, Underground Voices, Midwest Literary Magazine, Inwood Indiana Literary Review, Hack Writers, Six Sentences, Literary Mary, NexGenPulp, Is This Reality Zine, Darkest Before Dawn, strangeroad.com, FarAway Journal, Full of Crow, Heroin Love Songs, Bewildering Stories, Writing Raw, Unheard Magazine, Absent Willow Literary Review.