High Plains Passion
Garden City, KS
11:40. Sheriff Dylan Brody snapped his watch shut with a sigh. “Come on, son, it's time.” The somber sound of his voice broke through the agitated pacing of a dark-haired youth inside the jail cell, and he glared at Brody with a look that should have melted the bars and earned his freedom. Damned shame. He's just a kid. His life of crime will be short… but not because he made a better choice. “You know the procedure, son. Turn around. Hands out.”
The kid responded with a slew of profanity, clearly too young to understand facing death with poise or dignity.
And who says you'll do any better, old man? “Now, listen, Will,” Brody said, “there's nothing left to be done. You had your chance. This is what you chose. Are you going to fight me?”
“No,” Will snarled. “I don't have to. They will. You'll be sorry, but it'll be too late.”
And for you, it's already too late, Dylan thought, but he restrained the brutal truth. No reason to point it out now.
Will turned his back on the lawman in what looked like a gesture of defiance, and stuck his hands out between the bars. Dylan swallowed hard and fastened a pair of rudimentary handcuffs around the youth's wrists. Then, he unlocked the door to the cell and led the young man out.
“Want to cover your face?” he asked.
The only response was a rank curse.
Shrugging, Dylan grasped the manacle and led Will Blalock out into the dusty street. Jeering townspeople greeted their appearance with a racket of booing, hissing and clapping. Ugly words spilled from them.
“You know how many children you left orphaned, you little prick?”
“Crime doesn't pay, son. The Good Book says…”
Unlike his friends and neighbors, Dylan felt no such vitriol. While Will was, in fact, a murderer, he'd had nothing to do with creating orphans. That shooter had escaped, while this young man hadn't. Dylan knew the crowd wouldn't care about the distinction. They wanted a scapegoat on whom to vent their fear and grief, and Will had been inexperienced enough to get caught. So he would pay for his crimes – and those of his fellow train robbers – at the end of a rope.
The weather had turned dark and cold, common in a place with such an uncertain climate, and the wind nipped them through their clothing, aggressive as the words flying from the crowd that lined the streets. Dust billowed up into tiny tornadoes, swirling dead winter grass that had not yet greened up completely and tossing it into cursing mouths, reducing their abuse to choking gasps. Thank you, Lord, Dylan thought.
At the end of the long, straight street, the rugged gallows, erected from board that had been shipped in on the train last week, stood ready to exact rough justice. Will's steps faltered, and he was forced to rely on Dylan's strength to keep him moving forward.
At the foot of the scaffold, a couple approached. The man; young, handsome and wearing a grim expression in place of his habitual, white-toothed grin, held arms with a tall and rather homely woman. She regarded the robber with sad aquamarine eyes.
“What do you want, bitch?” Will snarled. Dylan gave the handcuffs a shake. I'll tolerate his abuse towards me, but Kristina doesn't deserve it.
She took no offense. Instead, tears streamed down her heavily freckled cheeks. She sniffled, her short, upturned nose wrinkling. “I had to tell you…” she sobbed. “To tell you…” Again, her voice broke, preventing speech.
“What?” Will demanded.
“Settle down, son,” Dylan suggested. “It's her brother you killed. She deserves to speak her piece.”
“I know that,” the boy snarled. “I should have run away, but let me tell you this right now… Heitschmidt deserved what he got.”
Kristina wept openly now. “I know that, I… had to tell you I forgive you. Go in peace.”
Will stared. “That's it?”
Kristina is the best of us, Dylan thought. What class.
She nodded, words having finally failed.
“Would you like to say a prayer?” her husband suggested, hope flaring in his eyes.
Dylan shook his head. He wouldn't talk to you the last time you came to see him, Pastor, or the time before that. While he understood why Cody couldn't give up, he knew the young man's efforts would come to nothing.
“Pardon me, preacher man,” Will replied in a sarcastic drawl, “but as it's your fault I'm here, I don't want no comforting from you.”
Cody bowed his head.
Fool boy. It's your fault you're here. Cody may have tied you up, but if you hadn't been robbing that train, this wouldn't be happening.
“Okay, folks,” Dylan told Cody and Kristina, “you two move on now. You did your best.”
“May God have mercy on your soul,” Cody said in his soft Texas accent. “Repentance is in the heart. Remember, Jesus forgave the thief on the cross.”
Billy's response was another foul curse. Cody blanched and fell back, allowing the grim procession to proceed.
It seemed the encounter with the pastor had galvanized Will's resolve. He mounted the scaffold under his own power, strode forcefully to the trapdoor and drew himself to his full height, leveling a defiant glare at the hissing, hollering crowd.
“William Blaylock,” Dylan began in a sonorous, emotionless voice, “you have been convicted of the murder of Calvin Heitschmidt by a jury of your peers and been sentenced to death. You shall now be hanged by the neck until you are dead, in accordance with the law. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Dylan glanced at Bill and saw his mouth white and his eyes squinting. “Can we just get this over with?” the kid hissed.
Dylan nodded. “Any last words?”
Will slowly filled his lungs with air. He cleared his throat and spoke. “You were warned. You didn't listen. Now you're going to be sorry. This town will pay. My father will come and avenge me. Mark my words. You can take my life.” His defiant tone wavered, then he steeled himself and pressed on. “You can win this round, but you'll never win the war. Never.” He turned to Dylan. “You'll be first, Sheriff. You and the preacher man.”
Dylan pressed his lips together, lowered a black sack over Will's head and drew in a deep breath. He scanned the gathered townsfolk until he locked his gaze with a pair of soulful, dark-brown eyes. While every other person stared at the condemned, Lydia's tear-streaked face remained fixed on Dylan's. He lowered his chin, acknowledging her with a nod and then turned to affix the rope around Will's neck, carefully arranging the knot behind the condemned man's ear.
“Vaya con Dios,” he murmured as he stepped back off the trapdoor. Bringing his foot down solidly on the boards, he signaled to the unseen executioner.
For a breathless moment, the tableau of a man, a noose, and a crowd, all adrift on a windswept plain seemed to freeze, imprinting itself on Dylan's memory forever. Then the floor of the scaffold fell away with a thump. The rope hissed as it lengthened, and then creaked as it reached its limit. Will grunted but didn't have time to holler. His noisy exhalation ended in a nauseating crunch that told Dylan he'd once again done his job correctly. Hell of a thing to be good at, he thought.
Lydia knew the time without having to look at the clock on the back wall of her sweltering kitchen. The constant slamming open and shut of the dining room door told her noon had arrived, and the lunch crowd with it, in search of repast after a morning hard at work.
Wiping her sweaty forehead with the back of one floury hand, she scooped up the tray of sandwiches from her preparation table and shouldered open the door into the dining room, savoring the relative coolness. Well of course it's cooler. There's no stove in here. She took the long way around the room, past the east side windows, which stood open in hopes that the movement of the hot prairie breeze would pass through as it billowed down Main Street, carrying with it the next load of dust. Residents of Western Kansas had to be tolerant of blowing dirt, especially in the summer. The breeze in no way felt cool, but at least it was moving. A sigh of relief dragged itself past her lips.
Arriving at the service counter, Lydia set the tray of sandwiches next to her cashier and general assistant, Esther, who began piling them on plates.
Lydia circled the room, her black boots clunking on the bare wooden floorboards. Well, no surprise, I'm far from a small woman. I can't trip lightly along like Becky can… or could, she amended with a grin. Her friend's increasing weight had added a decided thump to her normally feather-light steps. Even at thirty-five, she was still a radiant bride… and her 'honeymoon special' looks good on her so far. Suppressing a petulant internal whine that questioned whether she'd ever find what Becky had, Lydia concentrated on her work, rolling up her sleeves in an attempt to cool her sweaty flesh further.
By now, the regulars had become accustomed to seeing their plump, black-haired proprietress with the sleeves of her gingham dress rolled up above the elbow, but she caught some scornful glances from a couple of strangers at the table nearest the west window.
Inwardly, Lydia shrugged. What do I care if these two catch a glimpse of my forearms? They'll get their lunch like everyone else, glances notwithstanding. It's too hot to fuss, especially when there's work to be done.
She dusted her floury hands on her apron, raising a white cloud in the room, and circled, greeting all the patrons and those passing through by train. As she passed, she let them know the day's lunch menu. Lydia didn't go in much for choices. In the summer, lunch always consisted of a sandwich on one of the homemade rolls she baked fresh each morning, a pickle, a piece of fruit, and a drink: coffee, water, or buttermilk.
The fussy couple turned their noses up at her homey fare. “Come on, Marge,” the man said. “We could have brought sandwiches from home. Let's try the hotel across the street.”
With another glare at the proprietress, they exited. Lydia grinned. “Shouldn't someone tell them the nickname of the hotel?” she asked.
The other diners snickered into their cups.
“What do you mean, ma'am?” a stranger with silver hair asked her, wiping coffee from a luxurious, curling mustache.
With a laugh, Lydia replied, “It's true they have a menu, and options, but they also have a reputation, with the nickname of Accidental Hotel, because if you ever got fed there, it would be by accident.”
The man chuckled, his dark eyes twinkling. Lydia winked at him and moved on.
Once she had greeted all the customers, Lydia and Esther began handing out the plates and glasses, moving carefully around the room to avoid tripping on the loose boards that were beginning to poke up here and there.
A strong gust of sultry wind puffed in through the open window, ruffling the napkins on all the tables and sending several to the floor.
Young Billy Fulton scurried around picking them up. He was a conscientious lad, perhaps not the brightest, but well intentioned, and Lydia liked him.
“Thank you, Billy,” she told him, collecting the napkins from his big, grubby hands, and he grinned, showing his missing front tooth.
Lydia grinned back. “Now take a seat,” she urged him, “I know you're hungry. I made an extra-big sandwich, just for you.
Billy flopped into the spindly chair, which groaned under his substantial weight, and accepted the plate Esther brought him. He would be earning that extra slice of ham later, when he came back to sweep up.
The door banged open again, but this time the noise of heavy boots tromping across the floor added to its clatter.
Lydia froze, turned to look at the newcomer, and felt her face flush. “Hello, Sheriff,” she said, trying to control the nervous tremor in her voice.
“Hello Miz Lydia,” he replied, pulling off his black Stetson by way of a greeting, setting it on a table, and settling into a chair.
She hurried to bring him a meal, wanting to still the trembling of her hands. Setting the plate on the rough wood, she turned to leave. He grasped her wrist.
Lydia gasped at the unexpected contact. The sheriff reached up a large, calloused hand and wiped at her cheek. His fingers came away white.
“Thank you,” she said, forcing the words out above the pounding of her heart.
He released her wrist and she returned to the counter without another word.
“He's sweet on you,” Esther said in a carrying whisper.
“I know,” she replied, her face burning.
“And you're sweet on him too, ain't you?”
Lydia replied with a curt nod.
“Well then go get him, girl. Why don't you?” The old woman punctuated her advice with a cackle that drew attention.
“Let's talk about it later,” Lydia suggested. “We have work to do.” The first customer to finish his lunch, a burly farmhand called Rooster McGee, stepped up to the counter and dropped a handful of coins on the polished wood.
“These real?” Esther demanded, giving the man a suspicious and squinty-eyed glare.
His jaw dropped. “Yes, ma'am,” he insisted, bewildered.
“Come on, Essie,” Lydia urged her friend with a laugh. “It's been how many years since he gave you that plug nickel? He's a grown man now. Let's forget it.”
“Thanks, Miz Lydia,” the young man said, pushing sandy hair out of his eyes and stuffing his bedraggled straw hat back on top. Giving Esther a sour look, he scooted for the door. She cackled again.
“Stop flirting with the young men, you old hussy,” Lydia teased, and Esther's chuckles turned to peals of surprisingly musical laughter.
“I'll flirt when I want to,” the old woman snapped. “One of us should be eyeing the handsome men. If it ain't gonna be you, well I may be old, but I ain't dead yet.”
“You're a dirty old woman,” Lydia replied primly, swiping a cloth over the crumbs on the counter.
“And you're a silly young prude,” Esther shot back. “That sheriff is a fine figure of a man. I'd be swarming all over him, if he didn't have 'Lydia's private property' stamped over every inch.”
“Fiddlesticks. I haven't claimed a thing,” Lydia retorted, her cheeks heating.
“And just why in tarnation haven't you?” Esther demanded. “You're not getting any younger. If I was you, I'd hurry up and claim him. Pull him into an alley if you have to… or are you holding out for a ring?”
It slowly dawned on Lydia that the object of their indiscreet conversation might just be sitting behind her, close enough to hear every word. Slowly, her belly fluttering to nausea, she turned… and found the café deserted. Thank you, Lord. “Dylan and I are friends,” she said as she circled the room, collecting coins and cups from the tables.