Slipknot

"Pete Mesling's None So Deaf takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of American gothic, traditional and modern, with unsettling carnivals, kids breaking into decrepit houses on a dare and corrupt preachers in the Wild West. Nasty new stings in the tail alternate with tilted perspectives on horror tropes for this box of entertainingly poisoned chocolates."—Narrelle M Harris, The Opposite of Life

Don't miss my reading of both "Slipknot" and "A Pound of Flesh" in episode 9 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast. "Slipknot" originally appeared in a huge anthology of zombie westerns, by the way, so if this is your cup of tea, be sure to check out The Zombist.


Sheriff Leroux leaned back on the hind legs of his wooden chair and brought his feet up to rest on the desk. The action kicked up a little cloud of dust from the planks of the floor. He surrounded the toothpick in his mouth with a thin smile. A little dust suited the place. He drummed his fingers on a telegram and stared at the noose that hung from a crooked nail on the wall. With his free hand he pushed his hat a bit farther up on his head, freeing several sweaty locks of black hair.
“Time to take you off sabbatical, old Slipknot. Your work’s not done yet, by God.” His voice was scratchy and carried a hint of his French ancestry, and of a youth spent in Louisiana.
The door flew open and slammed against the wall. In ran Deputy Hapford. He stopped in front of the sheriff’s desk, out of breath. Leroux didn’t jump or shout but calmly brought one leg down, then the other, before scraping his chair closer to the desk.
“Who’s on fire, Deputy?” he said. He took the toothpick from his mouth and rolled it back and forth between his thumb and middle finger for a moment before poking it back into his smirk.
“You must not have heard yet,” the deputy said, still lacking breath. “They’ve caught themselves a suspect. An Etonville fella.”
“A negro,” Sheriff Leroux corrected.
Hapford smiled and removed his Stetson so he could play with its creases.
“So you have heard,” he said. “Sheesh, how’d you find out already?”
Leroux pointed at the telegram on his desk. “Sounds like a shut case.”
Hapford glanced at the noose. The sheriff stood up and walked over to it.
“Something that pretty, and with that much history, ought to be hanging in a museum,” Hapford said.
“That’s not the kind of hanging she’s accustomed to.” Leroux turned to face his deputy. “And her career’s not over quite yet.”

*****

Outside, the world was a bright, wavering mass of heat mirages. It was good to be out in the still Colorado air. Manning an empty jail made Leroux jittery. Someone wasn’t working hard enough if there were jail cells sitting empty; that’s how he viewed it. A lot of crime was being committed in those parts, plenty of unsavory behavior to keep every jail in five counties full to brimming with robbers, murderers…
Rapists.
His eyes narrowed as he stepped off the boardwalk into the empty street that ran right through the middle of Arrowhead. Built up on an ecstatic binge of prostitution and gold fever, the town was now little more than a husk, just waiting for a strong enough wind to come along and carry it away with the tumbleweeds.
“What did that city slicker call it?” Deputy Hapford asked. Leroux looked back at the jailhouse entrance. Hapford leaned against the jamb. In the shade of the awning he was indistinct. Leroux squinted even more. “The fella who was out here last fall,” Hapford continued, “looking for a place to set up his printing press.”
“Said it was a wraith town,” Leroux replied.
“Yup, that’s it. Wraith town. Not quite a ghost town, he said, but working day and night to get there. Goddamn right.”
The sheriff headed across to the saloon. The squawk of the batwing doors was the only sound in the place other than the fall of his boots as he stepped up to the bar. No bartender in sight. He picked up a shot glass and knocked on the bar with it. “Curt!”
“Sheriff Leroux.” It was the whisper of a snake. Leroux spun around to meet the whisperer, his hand falling from instinct to the gun on his hip. In a dark corner, sitting beside a piano that looked to have a scar from every glass of beer that ever sailed across the room, was a small man with a very big black hat.
“Otto Schichter,” Leroux said. “What cloud of stink did you float in on?”
“Oh, Henri. There’s really no cause for insults. I’m here on friendly business. Come, join me for a drink.” He brought an empty tin mug to his lips and wiped invisible beer foam on his sleeve. Leroux’s skin crawled but he joined the man. “You suppose your barkeep is sleeping one off upstairs or what?” Otto said.
“Let’s just have it,” Leroux said. “What brings the law of Etonville all this way just to gab with little old me? And if you call me Henri again I’ll break your fucking hands.”
“My, such language. Is that what got you kicked out of the seminary?” Otto laughed himself breathless, though Leroux just sat there, still as the air itself, no more than a razor grin on his face. Otto took another drink of nothing before going on. “Listen—Sheriff Leroux—I’d guess you’re probably entertaining thoughts of dragging that rope of yours across county lines, maybe stirring up more trouble in my humble burg than need be the case.”
Leroux ground a spur into the floor, slowly rolling it back and forth. He liked the rough sound of it, like knuckles cracking.
“Just doing my part to see that justice is served, Otto. Don’t see the harm in that.”
“Shit, Leroux. How many men have swung from that loop? Fifty? More? For God’s sake, the law’s supposed to stomp on trouble wherever it finds some. Ain’t supposed to go looking for it. Or worse, starting it.”
“More than a hundred.”
“Pardon?”
“That’s how many have choked out their last while dancing at the end of Slipknot. You can call them men if you like, but sixty or more was niggers. A good two dozen was redskins. Ain’t a decent one among them, and if I can spread that gospel as easy as making Slipknot available for the occasional hanging, then I’m doing the service of the Lord.”
“Some don’t see it that way. Word’s starting to spread that maybe you’re growing a little… loose in the head. People are looking for ways to make peace. They want solutions, not more problems. The kind of hate you stir up with that damn—”
Leroux shot to his feet, knocking his chair over in the process.
“The hate that I stir?” he yelled. “I guess the woman beaters and cold-blooded killers of the world ought to just be left alone, free to spread their fear and hate. Who do you think you are, anyway, coming into my town with your smug ideas about justice?”
“Okay, now settle down. I didn’t come here to change your mind about anything.” Otto rose, too. “But give this some thought: that haunted noose you set so much store by, its history goes before you. You can’t take that blood-stained piece of rope anywhere in Arapahoe County—hell, anywhere in eastern Colorado—and find a lawman or rancher who doesn’t know something about its past. Ownership of such a thing as that comes with some responsibility. Just remember, people are in awe of the rope, not the man who ties it to the tree.”
It was no use dignifying the man’s lecture with a response. Sheriff Leroux watched Otto Schichter until he was through the doors and out of sight.
“That you, Sheriff?”
He looked up to the balcony, where a fat, hairy man had both hands on the railing and was staring down at him. The man wore nothing but a grimy pair of dungarees and rubbed his ample belly with one hand.
“There you are, Curt. Would have bought a drink from you five minutes ago.” He was going to ask the bartender what had him in bed at that hour, but it became clear when a tall, full-figured woman with a mass of red hair that spread like a flame from her halo to her hips joined Curt at the railing, her breasts hanging from a partially buttoned nightgown that wasn’t meant to cover much to begin with.
“Hi, Sheriff,” she put in, all smiles. He didn’t wave or respond as he made for the exit.
The heat outside calmed him instantly. He did his best thinking in the heat. Standing in the middle of the street, trying to decide where to take himself, he guessed it to be the hottest day of the summer so far. He smiled thinly and gave a lazy salute to the sun as he made off to the west.
He felt something that was unfamiliar at first as he sauntered across town. Looking down he saw that he’d sprung a bastard of a hard on and was reminded of his revulsion toward the sex act. He punched it with his fist. Again, harder this time. Finally it went soft and he was master of his thoughts again.

*****

The wait felt long, but finally the day came for justice to be served in Etonville. Sheriff Leroux and Deputy Hapford rode side by side at a leisurely pace through the hilly grasslands that lay between Etonville and Arrowhead. Slipknot hung from the sheriff’s saddle horn and slapped against his steed’s lathered neck. Leroux might have made the whole trip in silence, but his deputy was a nervous man by nature, and on a ride of any duration he insisted on chattering.
At the outskirts of Etonville a small crowd was gathered. Men, women and children stood blocking the road.
“Word does travel, don’t it,” said Hapford.
That haunted noose you set so much store by, its history goes before you.
Leroux pulled his horse to a stop only when he was almost upon the crowd of gawkers. He’d half expected them to part at the last second and let him through, but they didn’t budge.
A plump woman in country dress stepped right up alongside him and broke the ice.
“We know who you are—and why you’ve come. Well, Etonville can handle its own problems just fine without any help from you, or that damned relic you carry around like a good luck charm.” She eyed the noose but only for an instant. “So why don’t you just turn yourselves around and stick to defending your own town.”
“Ma’am…” Leroux tipped his hat and leaned toward her in his saddle. “You can’t be the woman who was forced into beastly acts with a darkie, seein’ as how she took her own life and all.”
“No, sir. But—”
“So I have no words for you, and you have no authority over me.” He spurred his horse and let out a hyah!, and this time the crowd did part to let him and his deputy pass.
As the two of them rode to the center of town, where the hanging tree hunched like a beaten hostage, Otto Schichter emerged from a tiny jailhouse across the way. He met them in the street.
“I guess you already know how welcome you are here,” Otto said, looking up from beneath the brim of his enormous hat.
“I’m not here to gain friends,” Leroux said.
“No. Well, I’m sure there’s little danger of that. I trust Eva Tucker had a word or two for you.”
Leroux jumped down from his horse and took the reins. “I’m just going to hitch my ride outside the jail there and then do what needs doing and go home.”
“Dammit, Leroux. We’ve got a noose in this town, you know. We’ve also got a judge, and he didn’t come to the decision of hanging lightly. To be honest, there’s some folks hereabouts who think there’s maybe a question or two about this young man’s guilt.”
“And there’s at least one citizen hereabouts who’s convinced enough that he saw fit to send me a telegram.” Leroux pushed past Otto and tied up his horse. Hapford did the same.
Otto called after the two of them, “Isn’t it enough for you that he’s getting a public hanging?”
“Sheriff Schichter,” Hapford said, “let him do this and we’ll be on our way. What’s it to you if this damn ape swings from one rope or another?”
“The question is,” Otto shot back, “what’s it to him?” He stabbed his thumb in Leroux’s direction.
Leroux ignored their exchange and was pulling Slipknot down from its perch when something caught his eye. He looked over at the barred window of the jail. At first all he saw were two black fists, each wrapped around an iron bar, but a face soon came into focus. A pair of tired eyes stared out at him from the black of that face and the almost inseparable black of the cell.
“That the one?” he asked Otto.
“Now, Leroux, don’t go doing something you’ll regret later.”
“You the one raped that poor woman?” He turned his attention back to the prisoner. “You the one broke into her house while her husband was out hunting and put your dirty black hands all over her?”
The man behind the bars just stared back with those worn-out, pitiable eyes.
“Yeah,” Leroux went on, “I don’t really care to hear anything you’d have to say anyway.” He went around the hitching post and, taking a step forward, let a wad of spit fly into the captive’s face.
The man’s eyes closed as the phlegmy mass caught his cheek, but when his eyes flashed open a second later his gaze was as direct as before. Without pause he launched his own ball of saliva at Sheriff Leroux’s face. It was a direct hit.
Leroux choked back anger. He wasn’t about to let a hell-bound nigger make a fool of him.
“Well,” he said, “I guess we can both wipe our faces off. The difference is, if someone comes along an hour from now and spits in my face again, I’ll be able to wipe that off too, whereas you’ll be hanging by your neck from that tree back there.” For added emphasis he brought Slipknot up several inches and gave it a shake.
A little while later, after one of the local boys had set up a ladder under the hanging tree, Sheriff Leroux stood on the top rung but one, wrapping his pride and joy around a limb that might have been designed for lynching. His movements were oddly graceful, as if he were stringing decorations for a harvest dance instead of setting the noose that would end a man’s life.
“Keep the ladder steady now,” he called down to Hapford, who held on with both hands.
“Ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Hapford said back.
A sudden wind came on and sent a chill up and down Leroux’s back. Even though it was shaping up to be a scorcher, the mid-morning breeze cooled the flesh of his face and arms.
“All right, I’m coming down.”
Back on the ground he saw that the Etonville welcoming committee was arranging itself around the execution site. Some others who hadn’t been there to meet Leroux and Hapford at the edge of town were also converging on the spot. A few looked hungry for blood, but Leroux figured most were just curious.
“So,” he said to his deputy, “I’ll see you back in town?”
“Yup, I’ll sign as a witness and bring Slipknot back with me. Don’t you worry none.”
“Much obliged.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Leroux touched his hat and went for his horse. He didn’t say a parting word to anyone, just rode away from the hanging tree, away from the jailhouse and Otto Schichter’s ward, away from Etonville itself. He hadn’t gone far, however, before he heard a voice call to him from the brush at the side of the trail leading out of town.
“Mister Sheriff?”
He pulled his horse to a stop with a whoa and a quick tug of the reins. It was hard to tell exactly where the voice had come from, so he twisted his neck every which way, waiting for the speaker to say something else. Finally a little black boy emerged from off to his right.
“Was that you called out to me?” Leroux said.
The boy nodded, but the rest of his body was as firmly planted as a fence post. His hands were clasped together at his waist.
“Well, what could an ornery little pickaninny like you want with me?”
“You the man who brings the hanging rope with you wherever you go, aintcha?”
“Where there’s cause for it, yes. What’s it to you?”
“Why ain’t you sticking around for the show? You go to all that trouble to make sure a man gets hung proper and you don’t even stay to see him off?”
Leroux let out a little laugh. “I never watch, son. I don’t have the stomach for violence.”
“That’s my pop they’s planning to hang today. No one else will listen to me, Mister Sheriff, and I don’t suppose you’ll be any different, but I gots to tell you, my pop is innocent. I was with him the whole time Mrs. Danvers was being attacked.”
Leroux got down off his horse and walked it over to where the boy stood. He stared down into his frightened eyes.
“Boy, let me tell you something about life. There’s the truth, and then there’s the truth. I’ll tell you the real truth, if that’s what you want to know. And you can sing it to every Mary, Dick and Sue in Etonville for all I care. Ain’t one of ‘em will believe you.
“I’ve got a deputy by the name of Hapford. Most people think he’s a pretty decent man. A little light upstairs maybe, but good hearted. Well, their opinion of him would probably change quite a bit if they were to learn he has a little trouble keeping his dick in his pants. Not the kind of thing I usually condone, mind you, but a sheriff needs his deputy, and Hapford’s as good at his job as I need him to be. So once in a while he stirs up a little trouble and I do my best to cover it up for him. Well, this time he stirred up a heap of trouble. And once again I’m covering it up for him. He owes me for this one, by God.”
“You’d let my pop hang just so your deputy don’t get found out?” Tears welled up in the boy’s eyes.
“Son, I’d let your pop hang for spitting tobacco out the wrong side of his mouth. One day you’ll see how things are around here.” He mounted his horse again before finishing. “If you’re smart you’ll move somewhere else altogether. If you’re dumb you’ll stay here and wind up like your pop.”
He rode off and left the boy in a plume of dust.

*****

The boy stood there like that for a few seconds, trying to take in the man’s words and avoid a crying fit. He’d been brought up to respect the law, but the injustice that was unfolding against his father had him questioning a whole lot of things.
“You can come out now,” he said at last, his voice shaky. And from the vicinity where he had appeared came a large black woman, and behind her, Otto Schichter. The woman rushed at the boy and folded him up in her arms.
“Oh, Teddy!” she cried. “Well done, Teddy.”
Schichter leaned back with his arms on his hips and flashed a smile almost as broad as his hat. “Yes, sir. That was some fine questioning you done. What do you say we head on back to town and prevent a hanging?” Then, to the woman, “Might have to send Sheriff Leroux another telegram too, inform him that his deputy’s in good hands.”
He led the way back into Etonville, and the boy and his mother followed closely behind.
By the time they reached the town square, the accused was already seated atop Hapford’s mount, Slipknot snug around his sweat-slicked neck. The ladder had been set aside, and Hapford stood nearby, arms crossed, staring up at the man.
“Hapford!” Otto hollered, quickening his pace and leaving the boy and his mother behind. “I believe we have some talking to do before there’s any hanging in this town.”
Hapford shot him a startled look, and without hesitating he slapped the horse’s rump, sending the animal tearing off without a rider. Its gallop slowed to a trot before long, and soon it resorted to stamping lazy circles in the dusty road.
But no one’s attention was on the horse, because it turned out death wasn’t as clean a business as many of the townsfolk had hoped. The supposedly executed man swung limp and motionless for several moments, but then he started to twitch and writhe. His body became a wave of jittery movements, arms and legs flailing in the wan late-morning light. The crowd was still and aghast, and when his eyes flared open, red and wild with hate, everyone took a collective step backwards and sucked in a breath of air.
Everyone, that is, except for Deputy Hapford. He was too busy running, dropping his hat, stopping to pick it up and running again to be a part of the witnessing. He could be heard calling to his sheriff all the way out of town.
Teddy stepped away from the group as his father gripped the rope above him with both hands and hauled himself up enough to begin chewing through the fibers.
“Pop?”
The man groaned in response, his teeth at work on the rope.
The boy’s mother came to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and saw tears cutting through the dust of her face.
“Theodore,” she said. “I don’t think that’s your daddy anymore.”
That was all it took to scatter the onlookers, trailing shouts of “Spirit!” and “Devil!” and “Ghoul!”
The man bit through the last strands of rope and fell to the earth with a grunt. He landed in a crouch and slowly uncoiled himself. Something like a smile stretched across his face as he pulled the noose over his head and let it fall to the dirt. Those red gleaming eyes were once more on the boy, but mercifully the father thing turned toward the jailhouse and tramped in that direction, its movements uncoordinated and labored. The boy’s mother tried to hold him tight, but he had to follow, had to know.
Rounding the corner of the small building, the father thing disappeared from sight. Teddy raced across the square in pursuit. Around back of the jailhouse he watched it hunker down and start clawing at the earth, sending little clouds of dirt up into the air. After many minutes of this, it stopped cold. It had found something.
Teddy circled around to get a better view and saw that his father was engaged in a struggle with another thing. In the father thing’s hand was the hand of someone long buried. Soon the arm came free, then the shoulder, and finally, sending up several clumps of dirt, the head. It’s jawbone ground back and forth, its dead lips peeled away from the few rotten teeth that remained in its horrible mouth. Teddy heard it mutter something, this monstrosity that now used its other arm to deliver itself from the hole. The father thing stepped away and let the other come on its own. Suddenly the ground all around the hole began breaking apart. Hands shot up out of the earth, followed by heads that groaned with the obvious pain of being resurrected. Soon the plot of dry earth behind the jail was teeming with the dead come back to life. There was purpose in this, Teddy sensed. They were being called.
He crouched in the rear entryway until the last of them was out of sight around the corner. Then he followed. They traipsed to the main road out of town and lumbered off in the direction of Arrowhead. Without turning his gaze from the awful sight of their exodus, he noticed that Otto Schichter was approaching him.
“Son?” Schichter said. Teddy only swung his head slowly from side to side. “I’m not going to tell you I know what’s gone on here today. No one can.”
“What does Sheriff Leroux have against my pop?” The things from behind the jail were almost out of sight over the crest of a hill. Dust swirled in their wake.
“Well, that’s difficult to answer. Men sometimes get filled up with meanness at an early age. Some can get rid of it later in life. Others can’t. I’ve known Leroux a long stretch of years, and in all that time I’ve never seen him commit a single act of kindness. I don’t think simple human decency has anything to do with why he’s a lawman. And I don’t guess it helped matters any when his wife ran off with a colored fellow.”
“The dead folk who crawled out of the ground just now are going after him, ain’t they. They’s all been hung by the sheriff’s noose, I’ll bet.”
Otto placed a hand on Teddy’s shoulder. “Son, if that’s the case, there could be things like that coming back to life for miles around, looking for a little retribution. Our little potter’s field isn’t the only place where Leroux’s handiwork’s been buried over the years.”
Teddy looked up and smiled at the man, comforted by the shade from the brim of his hat. “Mr. Schichter, that sounds all right to me.”
Schichter let out a laugh and moved his hand around to Teddy’s back. “You know, it don’t sound half bad to me, neither. Even better if Deputy Hapford is to their taste as well. Now let’s go see how your mama’s holding up, huh?”
She sat under the gently swinging rope, turning the severed loop in her palsied hands. The way her dress spread out around her, it was almost like she was melting from grief. She looked up and wailed as Teddy and Otto came to a halt beside her.
“Mrs. Jamhorn,” Otto said. “I know it ain’t much, but I think some sort of justice is being served here today. We’ve got to believe that.”
“Did you see what my husband turned into?” she sobbed.
“Yes, I did. And I learned a long time ago that the Lord’s works are as mysterious as they are good. You believe that, don’t you?” She nodded, casting her eyes downward. “Good, because you’ve got a boy here that you’ve got to help turn into a good strong man.”
“Mama,” said Teddy, taking Slipknot from her and holding it at his side, “Let’s get you home. You need rest.”
She went with him reluctantly, and nothing further was said as she and her son walked home arm in arm, leaving the good sheriff to work up the lies he’d have to tell for years to come about what had just taken place. Teddy didn’t envy him the task. But then, Teddy had his own challenges ahead of him. His mother would need him at least as much as he needed her in coming days, and there was no guarantee that they’d ever really recover from their loss. That was the way of the world, and if it wasn’t exactly fair, young Theodore Jamhorn thought it might still be right somehow. At any rate, he was in no position to question the authority of God’s will. Who was, after all?


www.petemesling.com

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Contents

Crisscross Purposes

A Pound of Flesh