A Good Man
By Dustin Lawrence Lovell
You can see the lake bed past the tabletops from here, he thought. Maybe not; the lake was dry this time of year, anyway. The man scoffed. It had been this time of year for the past several years.
Looking down at the quietly onlooking crowd, he saw faces as familiar as the old mesas. Some—especially the older ones, who had been in the town when he landed there as a young stableman—were similarly weather-worn; others who’d arrived after him had had their youth sweated out of them by the landscape. They could have left, returning east to report to families and old friends about their adventures into the western frontier. They had not; so much for that, he thought.
One face caught his eye. Rosamund’s cheeks had not sunk the way others’ had; she had been spared the worst of the town and weather. He’d always thought her pretty.
“And it is because of events like this,” continued the sheriff next to him, “that we must set an example—much more, now, as we seek to establish our territory as part of the Union. Justice must be upheld, however much our sympathies might cry mercy…”
Eyes reddened but mouth closed, Rosamund was not looking at nor listening to her husband. Her attention was on the man standing next to him—on himself, the man with the noose around his neck.
He had come to the Arizona territory a couple of years previous, letting the weight of his wooden foot pull him down off of the black locomotive onto the red dirt. He had lost the limb to a broken ankle on the march south from western Pennsylvania to reinforce McClellan after Bull Run. He still couldn’t decide if he was disappointed or thankful the perhaps overzealous field doctor’s effort to prevent blood poisoning had precluded him from actually fighting. Either way, barred from most manual labor, he had discovered a patient knack for caring for horses while most men were away south; nearly halfway through his twenties by war’s end and anticipating the northward return of his town’s men, he had taken his talents west to try his hand at being a stableman and farrier.
That was ten years ago. After the first years’ initial humbling by and proving himself to the others in town and the environment outside it, he had found himself established as a taken-for-granted member of the growing frontier settlement. He had even developed a corner of the town into a corral and stable, which, on account of the extension of the main street into the surrounding dirt and scrub brush, now stood closer to the center of town than the edge. That he had not been forced to move his small, ad hoc business only underscored his place in the community—or at least its transportation economy.
Listening to the sheriff reading a prepared speech off a paper signed at the bottom with a scribble—Rosamund had taught him to sign his name not three months previous—he looked from the scaffold to the horses standing behind the fence he, himself, had made; most were oblivious, some more cognizant of the strange structure hastily erected in the town’s center. He was where he was, atop that structure, because of what happened when the corral was empty.
It came about when the sheriff and most of the able-bodied men were out tracking the Sugarfoot Band; the raid had been necessary. Sugarfoot had become as ubiquitous as the dry just outside of town. Once again, while others went to fight the good fight, he had remained behind. He swallowed against the rough rope, feeling the dull weight of his wooden foot; after too often keeping him from danger, the carved oak shaft running from just below his knee to the ground, would, in the end, be his downfall. To laugh would be superfluous, but he wanted to nonetheless.
However, this time he had not been the only one to stay behind. He disliked judging men without direct cause, especially when he, himself, had received his share of misplaced ridicule and could just as easily be censured by greater men, but he had never quite trusted Mr. Stanley McLeod. Stan had a too eager willingness to stay behind. He would call it “simpering,” but believing such a word could apply to a man felt like a line not to be crossed. It reminded him of how he had felt when first hearing read aloud Stan’s unsolicited pamphlet on the dangers of alcohol; it was not the content so much as the whining yet smug tone behind the words. He could understand calls for individual reflection regarding the drink, but a blanket ban seemed to protest too much. Besides, he had not forgotten his childhood in Pennsylvania. His uncle’s pot still had kept their family fed through more than one winter.
So, when McLeod had declared his decision to selflessly stay behind to protect the women, children, and handicapped men, the town’s lone handicapped man had kept his eyes open. Good thing, too. Seeing Stan following Rosamund on her daily walk to do her and the sheriff’s washing at the well, he had dropped his hoof nipper and limped after to investigate.
He looked down at the woman from the scaffold, remembering the scene. How Stan hadn’t heard him coming was beyond him. Rosamund’s screams at the clerk’s unwelcomed and undeterred advances had probably had something to do with it. The screams ended when, kneeling right behind the man, he’d shot Stan in the temple. As the sound and smoke cleared, he and Rosamund just looked at each other across Stan’s collapsed shoulders, she on her back, skirt pulled above her knees and other garments half pulled away, he on his knee, smoke issuing from his revolver muzzle.
He lifted Stan’s torso enough for her to stand. Grabbing a handful of her laundry from under the pump, she looked back at him. “Please, don’t tell my husband …” she had said. He’d merely nodded, removing his hat for a moment. He agreed. No use causing her—or her husband—more trouble with words. The sheriff was a good man, he’d figured, and still did, and he didn’t want people questioning the man’s ability to protect them if he couldn’t protect his own wife. He’d leaned back against the pump, listening to others coming and trying to ignore the motionless, half-indecent body next to him.
“Now,” said the gray-bearded, star-bearing man next to him, “I’ll ask for the final time: do you have anything to say for yourself and your murder in cold blood of Stanley McLeod, clerk, temperance advocate, and upstanding member of our community?”
And suffrage advocate, the man thought. Such omission could be forgiven; the sheriff probably wanted to prevent unnecessary rumors about Rosamund’s political opinions, with which Stan had been vocally sympathetic on more than one occasion. Let it lie. What was it Shakespeare had said? For Brutus is an honorable man? He looked at Rosamund. Tears were staining her flushed cheeks, and despite her quivering jaw, she was biting both of her lips closed. So much for that.
“Then, if you have no defense,” said the sheriff, not unsympathetically, “it’s our duty as representatives of the law of the Arizona territories and as stewards of the peace of the Union to see justice done.”
The man met the sheriff’s eyes; he gave a smile and a nod. There was too much to say, and, in the end, nothing. He wouldn’t have done it any differently. The sheriff was a good man, and, after all, he’d been out taking care of the town; they’d both been protecting Rosamund, in their own way. Besides, he thought as a burlap sack was lowered over his head, he’d never have a chance with a woman like her, and he was tired of staying behind.
From inside the rough fabric, he couldn’t tell if the sound was a woman’s shriek or the rope pulling taught against the scaffold.
Dustin Lovell writes from San Gabriel, CA, where he teaches English, writing, and U.S. History. Having studied literature in southern CA and at Oxford University, he is evangelical about Shakespeare, and his writing often focuses and reflects on the literary canon. He is a columnist and serialized novelist for the UK magazine The Mallard, and the only thing he’s more excited about than being published in The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable’s Summer 2021 issue is his and his wife’s having their first baby (a girl!) in nearly the same week. His work for The Mallard can be found at https://mallarduk.com/category/comment/columnists/dustin-lovell/, and his informal literary reflections and book reviews can be found at https://dustinllovell.wordpress.com/.