Progress in Promise (short story)

            He heard the sound of men working most of the afternoon- wood being sawed, a man barking orders, hammers hitting nails. Samuel was sitting in the small office of his father’s grocery store. After school, in the afternoon, he would do his homework while his mother and father worked. Sam’s father, Joseph, walked into the office looking for some papers.

“What are those men building, pa?”

“Gallows,” said Joseph.

“What’s that?”

“It is for hanging folks that have done something wrong.”

“You mean they kill ‘em?” Sam asked with a puzzled look.

“Yes, Sam.”

“You must have to do something real bad for that?”

“Yes, Sam.” Joseph found what he was looking for and went back to work.

Joseph was stern and often angry. Samuel annoyed him with questions. Joseph thinks someone can learn everything they need to know by listening and watching close. Joseph has told Samuel this, but he always forgets. Samuel put down his pencil, stood up and walked to the window. He watched the men as they worked. He was still confused about what the gallows were for. His curiosity frightened him. Samuel’s mother, Margaret, walks into the office.

“Grab your things, Samuel. It is time to go.”

“Are they going to hang somebody ma?” Sam pointed to the almost completed gallows.

“I do not know Samuel. They must need it for someone.”

Margaret said this as if questioning the men. Joseph and Margaret came to the town not long after it was named. They never had to hang anybody before. The town of Promise was nearly ten years old. They only had a mayor and sheriff for five years. The Wilson’s opened there store four years ago. Samuel is eight years old. There is a hotel with a café and a saloon with cards and billiards. There is a jail with a small courthouse, the Wilson’s grocery store, a one room school house, a white church, and Mr. Washington, the blacksmith, with his horses and wagons.

There were nineteen houses in Promise, eighteen families, including the Wilson’s. The nineteenth house was Judge Harper. His house was out past everyone else. He had only been in town for a year. New houses are soon going to be built. More families will be moving in. The cattle business is booming and deals have been struck for ranches and stables to be built in and around Promise. The talk of progress had been a big subject in recent months and the town was talking even more about the gallows.

Mr. Wilson is one of the men that the developers have been talking to along with Judge Harper, Lucas Hatton, the sheriff, and Mr. Washington. The town voted them to be the spokesmen working with Booster Cattle. It was the men from Booster Cattle who were building the gallows. You could tell that they had built one before.  Margaret and Samuel walked out of the office to find Joseph waiting for them. Judge Harper was on his way out and the bell on the door rang as it shut.

“The judge said that one of the Booster cattleman was drunk last night and killed another cattleman,” said Joseph.

“How awful,” said Margaret.

“Then he tried to steal one of Mr. Washington’s horses. He was so drunk that he fell and Mr. Washington caught him. Lucas was already there to arrest him because he heard the shot from the jail.”

“What did he kill him for?” asked Margaret.

“Over a card game.”

The Wilson’s walked through the small town to their two-room house. Samuel listened to his parents as they talked. Joseph wondered how much this would hurt the town’s progress. Its first murder would not sit well with the rest of the town.

“Is this what these cattle men are going to bring?” Joseph growled. “They already brought those women that stay in the saloon.”

Margaret’s eyes widened and she looked at Samuel, then at Joseph.

“These sort of things happen, I guess.” said Margaret.

“All for progress,” said Joseph.

The Wilson’s walked into their home. Joseph and marry lit the lanterns. After they ate dinner, Margaret sent Samuel outside for a small bucket of water then off to bed. Joseph and Margaret talked more about progress in Promise.  Joseph talked about the cattlemen and the way they had to live and how they liked to drink. Margaret whispered about the women that work in the saloon and how rumors and lies were already being spread.  They were both unsure about the future of Promise. They spoke some more while Margaret finished washing the dishes. They went to bed.

The next morning was Saturday. The whole family worked in the store all day. They put on their best clothes and walked to the store. The town was stirring. Everyone was up and waiting for Judge Harper. Joseph sent Margaret and Samuel ahead to open the store. Joseph wanted to speak to Lucas.

“Hi, Luke,” Joseph said as he walked in the jail.

“Morning, Joseph.”

“Did you talk to the cattleman, Luke?”

“Yeah, he said he does not remember shooting his friend.”

“Does he feel bad about it?”

“He said that he never really liked him anyway. The boy he killed was eighteen. The other cattlemen buried him last night.”

“Can I see him?” Joseph asked.

“You know where,” said Lucas.

Joseph walked around the desk and through the open cell door into another room with smaller cells. He saw the cattleman, beat up and still passed out.

“Who beat him up?

“Those cattleman did,” said Lucas. “I fired a couple of shots in the air and they quit kicking him.”

“When is Judge Harper coming in?

“Any time now,” answered Lucas.

“I’ll be at the store.” Joseph left Lucas with his coffee.

Joseph went to the store and the family worked as if nothing had happened. Judge Harper came in to the jail, talked to Lucas, and everyone then crammed into the court house. The cattleman was brought in. Judge Harper read from the Bible and told the man what he was charged with and asked him if he had anything to say for himself.

“Do not judge me, lest you be judged, Mr. Harper.”

“You will call me Judge.”

“I like to drink, Mr. Harper, life has always been tough for me. My folks died when I was young   and I’ve been rambling ever since. I spent time locked up before. But I know my fate; I heard them building the gallows for me.”

“You may not remember, but your drunkenness is no excuse. For your crimes, you shall be hanged until you are dead.”  Judge Harper banged his gavel. “May God have mercy on you.”

Lucas took the cattleman back to his cell. Everyone cleared out of the court house and walked to the gallows. Lucas readied the gallows with a couple of the cattleman.  The Wilson’s could see the townspeople outside, but decided to stay and keep working.  Samuel feared asking any questions and every time he walked near the window his mother would make him get back to sweeping or stacking cans. Joseph did the inventory and Margaret stood by the register as if someone would come in.

The cattleman ran up the stairs of the gallows. His hands were tied. Lucas put the noose around the cattleman’s neck. Lucas looked at the crowd and almost felt ashamed.

“Do you have any last words?” Judge Harper asked.

“I’ll ramble no more.”

Lucas put a hood on the cattleman. The judge looked at one of the bigger cattleman and he pulled the lever. The cattleman fell and the women in the crowd gasped. The cattleman shook a moment then hung very still. The crowd turned away slowly and went back to their business. The children started playing in the street and Lucas went back to the jail. Judge Harper watched as a few of the cattleman took the man down and buried him next to the boy he killed.

William Sandhill came into the store and told Joseph about how it all happened. He told him what happened in the courtroom and how the cattleman ran up the stairs. He told him about the look on Luke’s face and what the cattleman’s last words were. William told Joseph about what all the women said and how they buried that cattleman next to the boy that he killed. Margaret walked into the office. She was tired of the talking. Samuel listened closely. He watched them, as he pretended to work.


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