Table of Contents
1 – The Bet
“It’s all in the feet. See? See how much he’s kicking? Can’t conserve a breath like that, no sir.” Maggie looked up at the man swinging from the high branch of Hangman’s Tree. She felt a twinge of sympathy, but mostly anticipation. A pocket watch ticked slowly in her hand.
“You’re wrong, it’s the swinging. Puts too much pressure on the neck, squeezes all the life out. Watch now.” Otis approached the hanging man following the swinging death arc with his arm.
“And how, pray tell, is he supposed to stop swinging when they kick the bucket out from under him like that?” Around a minute earlier, the lawless men had put the poor bastard to the noose and removed his last lifeline. It was a common practice, but far less likely to break the offender’s neck than traditional gallows.
Otis turned to Maggie and scoffed. “Core exercise.”
“Core exercise?!” Maggie spat in a futile gesture.
“You stop the swing with your abdomen, sucking it in like this.” Otis made a big show of sucking in what little stomach he had. “Stiff as a board, conserved energy, maybe buys you enough time that someone comes and lets you down.”
“Oh, he’ll be stiff as a board alright. What do you recon? Under three minutes?”
“Under three minutes, hah. No one has gone that quick, not even you.”
Maggie rubbed at the black scar around her neck where the rope had cut in. “That a bet then?”
Otis laughed, a hollow sound. “Oh, you bet it’s a bet. An easy one at that.”
Astride powerful horses ten feet away, the men who strung the noose watched hungrily as the hanged man’s struggle grew more desperate. The leader kicked his horse and cantered closer to the dying man. “This is what happens when you try to two-time me, boy. It’s the last mistake you ever going to make.”
Maggie moved closer, feeling a horrible sense of familiarity. “That you, Reggie?” she asked, mostly to herself. A mask covered the bottom half of the man’s face, black to match his hat and horse. As far as gallows theming went, Maggie thought it got the point across, even if it was a bit overplayed.
Otis floated circles around the hanging man. “You think everyone is Reggie. Can we keep to the matter at hand?” He glared at the condemned. “Will you hold still for one minute?!”
Maggie ignored him, staring down the leader. “It’s him, I’m sure of it.”
Otis stopped his pacing for a minute to look over. “Well, if that’s Reggie, he sure is looking well.”
“Hate in the veins will do that, keeps you young just to spite all the people who want you dead.”
“Well I’m sure there’s more than a few of those. Why do they need to do that anyway?”
“Tell the nearly dead why it is they had to die?”
“Assuaging a guilty conscience, I guess.” Maggie returned her attention to the hanging man and the pressing matter of their bet. She circled, willing him to die just a little faster. The pocket watch in her hand ticked slowly forward. “Two minutes thirty,” she called out.
“Amazing that damned thing still works. The ethereal plane won’t let me fix my damned hat, but you can pull a watch out of your pocket and it still ticks.” Otis’s hat skewed to the left, slumping down over one eye, permanently on the verge of falling off.
“Yup, the afterlife’s a bitch, Otis, and it’s about to get a lot worse for you.” She pointed a finger at the nearly deceased as his frantic swinging turned to spastic jerking.
“Ah, put him out of his misery,” cried one of the hangmen.
Maggie looked up in surprise. It was hard to tell with the mask covering most of his face, but the man who had called out sounded young. “Reggie’s recruiting kids these days?”
The leader gave a disgusted snort at the idea. “Shut up, I’m trying to enjoy this.”
“You think that’s a pervert thing?” Otis’s eyes widened.
Maggie raised an eyebrow. “Really? At a time like this?”
“Can’t tell with the mask, but I bet that sick son of a bitch is licking his lips. Criminal and a pervert. This town really does take all types.”
“Even after all these years, Otis, I will never understand what catches your attention.”
“Nobody deserves this,” called the young man. “Someone, shoot him and end this.” A nervous tremor crept into his voice.
“He keeps standing up like that and we’re going to have a second hanging today.” Hangings were the closest thing Maggie and Otis got to entertainment, but one was enough.
“I hear you. Look at the conscience on this kid. A little late, I’ll admit, but nice to see in the youth. Maggie, you know this doesn’t count, right?”
The horseman in the lead shot a glare, attempting to silence the younger man.
“Maggie, this shit does not count!”
“Maybe you can put that in the rules of the bet next time. Watch his hand.”
Sure enough, the young man’s hand moved to his pistol, hesitant at first, but firm when it found the grip. He looked at the leader and then to the dying man. “Fine, I’ll do it myself!” The young man drew his pistol, hardly taking time to aim and pulled the trigger. The shot rang clear across the plains and struck the hanged man dead in the face.
At the same instant, the hanged man appeared beneath the noose, looking much like his former self, but suffused by a pallid, green glow and semi-transparent. pulling his hands up in front of his face. “No!” he shouted.
Maggie clapped her hands together. “Down to the wire, but that is two-fifty-seven. I believe you have someone to welcome, Otis.”
“Maggie, I said this didn’t count.” If Otis’s face could have flushed, it would have. Instead, it remained the same omnipresent ethereal gray that accompanied the dearly departed.
“A bet is a bet, and you know what that means.”
“You’re a real son of a bitch, Maggie.”
“Fair is fair, break it to him gently.”
Otis shook his head and walked over to the newly deceased man still holding his hands over his face. “You can put your hands down, kid. It’s too late to block that shot.”
“Stay back!” Shouted the man, keeping his hands up.
Maggie wanted to savor her victory, but she was watching the horsemen. Already, a scuffle had broken out and the gunman with a conscience was taking a beating. The gun was out of his hand, forgotten in the dirt as two men kicked him repeatedly in the ribs.
“You’re lucky I know your pops, or you’d be swinging next to him right now.” The leader landed a savage blow, causing the kid to spit up blood.
Meanwhile, Otis knelt next to the newly deceased, trying his best to explain what was never an easy concept.
“Where—” the dead man faltered, trying to gasp for air, but finding none.
“You’ll get used to that. What’s your name?”
“Adam.” The man’s eyes were wide, searching his surroundings.
“Well, Adam, welcome to the not-so-great beyond. Name’s Otis, and that’s Maggie.”
Maggie continued watching the horsemen as they slung the battered man over his saddle and prepared to ride back towards wherever they had come from. The leader turned, his mask down, no longer needing to conceal his face.
Maggie glared at him, willing some force from beyond to let him see her.
Reggie, leader of the Hosh Gang, and the man who had hung her, gazed longingly at Hangman’s Tree. “Rot in hell, boy,” he whispered, before spurring his horse and riding into the rising sun.
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