Facing Death, Part I

“An’ now, here’s the poor sumbitch himself, ready to face justice fer his crimes!”

I heard someone shout something, but the bag over my head muffled the words. I felt a palm impact sharply with my back, knocking me forward. My foot hit the wooden step in front of me, and I staggered, nearly pitching forward.

Thankfully, the hand behind me grabbed the back of my collar, kept me from toppling down. Good thing, too, since they’d bound my hands. No chance of escape, not this time. I was pretty much well and truly screwed. Wouldn’t be walking away from this one.

I’d accepted that fact, sitting in the single cell in the town last night. I’d sat there, stared at the stones of the wall across from me, felt my brain skittering about and searching for any way out of here.

It came up with nothing. I’d cried, back then, sobbed at the sheer knowledge that this was the end, this was how I went out.

But now, all my tears were out. I’d come to accept my fate, I guessed. Never thought it would happen to me, but there you go. Never figured that I’d be lynched in some two-penny town like this one, but seems that Life has a way of spittin’ in the eye of dreams.

At the top of the stairs, the hand once again grabbed the back of my collar, yanked me up short. “An’ here he is!” shouted out the voice again, this time eliciting raucous cheers. “Who wants to get a look at the sumbitch afore he feels the rope?”

The hand released my back, moved up and tightened its fingers in the bag over my face. It yanked the rough burlap away, taking more than a few hairs with it. I winced, as much at the sudden brightness of the sun that hit my eyes as at the pain of losing those hairs.

Even as I blinked to try and overcome the lancing sunbeams, I knew what I’d see. I stood on the hangman’s platform, looking down at the little assembled crowd of townspeople and onlookers who’d come to watch a bandit hang. They scowled up at me. One threw a stone, although it missed me by a good foot.

“An’ now,” proclaimed the puffed-up toad of the town’s sheriff, standing beside me with his chest so swollen that it almost overshadowed his dangling gut, “let’s hear if he’s got any last words fer us!”

Last words. Always a fine tradition. Outlaws much greater than me went out with some good last words, sealing their place in history. I probably oughtta say something.

But instead, my eyes landed on one figure towards the back of the crowd. He seemed strangely out of place, even if none of the others glanced at him. He was too tall, I thought to myself, my brain struggling a little as if it couldn’t quite make an obvious connection. Too tall, and too thin. Looks unhealthy, even with those blue eyes locked on me.

And what was he holding? Stick of some sort? It had a line sweeping out from it, glittering in the light. What was that? Some sort of farming instrument?

The sheriff smacked me in the arm, jolting me out of my reverie. “Last words, man!” he repeated, narrowing his eyes at me. Supposed that he wanted a spectacle, too, something he could wave in front of the townspeople when they finally decided to throw him out of office on his ass. “Black Dalton, gonna be lynched without saying nuthin’?”

I sighed at the name. Black Dalton? My skin was tanned, but nowhere near black. Some yellow journalist decided to give me a name thanks to the coal smoke off the derailed and burning train, and it apparently stuck.

But I needed some last words, it was true. I turned back to the crowd – but once again, that tall, thin figure caught my eye and distracted me. He’d moved closer, and now stood right in the middle of the crowd. His height made him easy to spot, but none of the other onlookers seemed to be complaining about him blocking the view. He stared straight up at me.

Really thin face, he had. Almost skeletal…

I opened my mouth. “I commend my soul to any that will have me,” I said. I’d come up with the words last night, sitting in my cell and facing death. They were good ones. Direct and to the point, easy to remember. Hopefully, one of these yokels would manage to remember them long enough to get them to a journalist or someone who could hold a pen to paper.

My eyes remained locked on that tall figure. Really thin. No flesh on him at all. Just a skull, staring back at me, little blue pricks of light burning like twin flames in the empty sockets…

I froze as the penny finally dropped in my brain.

One of those little blue flames flickered out, and then rekindled. A wink?

The sheriff, meanwhile, apparently got tired of sweating in the sun, even though it wasn’t yet even midday. “And now, for the crimes of killin’ men, stealin’ from the Federal Mail, and destruction of guv’ment property, you’re sentenced to hang from the neck until dead!” he cried out, and I staggered as a heavy rope landed around my neck. He yanked back, dragging me over the trapdoor in the platform.

My eyes remained locked on that skeleton – and yes, that’s what it was, no doubting it now – standing in the robe. Blood rushed in my ears, and I couldn’t hear the sheriff’s last words, barely even noticed the jerk as he pulled the lever and sent me to my death.

The world faded away, everything – sound, light, sensation – rushing away and narrowing to a pinprick. I felt blackness close in, wiping away everything in my head, crushing my perception down to a single point in the vast ocean of emptiness.

I waited for that little last pinprick of sensation, of reality, to wink out.

It didn’t.

Strangely, after an eternity, it seemed to start to grow larger…

*To be continued!*

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