<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> They hanged Jimmy Comes Last forty minutes after Daniel Killstraight arrived in Fort Smith. <p> He came in from St. Louis on the old St. Louis & San Francisco line-The Frisco, folks called it-getting off at the depot on Garrison Avenue with nothing but a gaudy carpetbag, practically empty, and a stomach equally barren. Daniel couldn't believe how big the city had grown in ... what had it been, seven years? Not that it compared to the cities he had seen back East, nor had he ever spent much time in Arkansas before leaving for Pennsylvania. Maybe he had thought Fort Smith would have reminded him of home, but smoke from the steamboats and factories along the big river stung his eyes, and the noise ... his head split from all the shouts. <p> Adjusting his ill-fitting bowler, he suddenly staggered back in shock, confusion, even a touch of fear, when a stranger spit in his face. <p> "Take money from my chil'ren, you damned greaser!" a red-mustached man wearing a sweat-stained bandanna roared in an Irish brogue. <p> Daniel stepped back as the man lifted a baseball bat and started to swing. <p> Luckily the man never finished. Appearing out of nowhere, a city policeman struck Red Mustache from behind with a nightstick, and the bat <i>rattled</i> on the cobblestones as the man dropped to his hands and knees. Passersby hurried on. Few even stopped to glance at the ruction. <p> "Seamus O'Donnell, you bloody fool," the policeman said, his brogue equally thick. "Striking's bad enough ... now you want to be hanged by Judge Parker, too!" The officer shoved the club in his belt and pulled groggy Red Mustache to his feet, then snapped at Daniel. "Away with you, lad. Frisco Depot's no place to be." <p> When Daniel hesitated, the policeman roared: "Scat! I have no damned use for a scab, either!" <p> Scab? Daniel wanted to tell them both he had been a passenger. Strike? No wonder he had the rocking, dirty Frisco car to himself. He said nothing though, merely pulled on his bowler and hurried down Garrison Avenue, away from the depot, weaving in and out of the throng, still hungry, but at least Red Mustache had scared away his headache. <p> He wandered the crowded streets, up and down the hills, over the cobblestone and boardwalks, until his feet hurt, walking aimlessly, hopelessly, still amazed at the number of people. Vendors hawked their wares. Men lounged outside grog shops and mercantiles, smoking cigars, cigarettes, pipes. Hansom cabs drawn by big draft horses <i>clopped</i> and <i>clanked</i> over stones and gravel. Ladies in fashionable dresses walked past him, never daring to make eye contact. What was it the conductor had told him? Well, not really told him, but Daniel had heard it in passing. Fort Smith had better than 17,000 souls now. Seemed like twice that many. <p> He had considered spending the night in town-he could never sleep well on trains, and he had been riding the rails since Pittsburgh. Not that he could afford a decent hotel. Or any hotel. Likely he would wind up spending the night in some wagon yard, if they'd have him. Buy a horse-although the idea of stealing one made him smile-and rig and head west, cross the Arkansas by ferry into Indian Territory. Go home. <p> If he could call it home. <p> If he had ever had a home. <p> The smell of fresh-baked bread and sizzling ham stopped him, and he looked into the window, stepped back, read the sign over the door: <i>Hotel Main.</i> <p> Well, he certainly couldn't afford a room here, and doubted if he could buy a meal as he'd need all the money he had just to get that horse and rig. The ferry wasn't free, either, and he couldn't swim. Besides, the look he got from one diner staring out the window told him they wouldn't serve him in a place like the Hotel Main. <p> He kept walking, managing only a few steps before a man in a sack suit staggered out of the hotel's saloon and clapped a huge hand on his shoulder. <p> "Howdy," he said in a Texas drawl. "Come for the hangin'?" <p> Daniel turned timidly. Timid? Had those seven years made him a coward? He frowned. <p> "Don't let folks in no more," the man said. He had brilliant blue eyes, beard stubble of two or three days, plaid trouser legs stuck inside tall brown boots with a green Cross of Lorraine inlaid in the tops, and large-rowel spurs. A battered hat, maybe gray, perhaps dust-caked white, topped his head, an outfit of contradictions. Part businessman with his suit, part drover with those boots and hat. His breath stank of whiskey. <p> "Folks here got citified," the man said, slurring his words. "Used to let anyone come see a body get his neck stretched, but not since...." He jerked his thumb toward the saloon. "Well, the gents in yonder told me since 'Seventy-eight? Or was it 'Seventy-nine? No matter. It's your lucky day." He winked. "I got us a pass. Don't mind sharin'. I'd enjoy the comp'ny." <p> Daniel started to decline the invitation, but glanced across the street to find Red Mustache glaring at him. Daniel's drunken newfound friend had three inches over the Frisco striker, even without his boots, and a half foot over Daniel, so he let himself be steered down Garrison Avenue, leaving Red Mustache glowering, and rubbing the back of his head. <p> "Name's Henry," the stranger said a block later. "Cotton Henry. But if one of 'em marshals ask you at the gate, I'm Wooten with the Arkansas City <i>Republican,</i> and you's Palazzo with the <i>Globe-Democrat</i> up in Saint Lewey. Figgered you could pass for some Eye-talian." Cotton Henry snorted. "My maw would have a regular hissy fit if she knowed I was consortin' with a bean-eater, but you's all right ... uh?" <p> "Daniel. Daniel Killstraight." He smiled, thinking: <i>My mother would have slit your throat and kicked me out of the lodge had she known you, and everyone else in this city, kept mistaking me for a Mexican.</i> <p> He couldn't blame Cotton Henry, though. His raven-black hair was close-cropped, and he wore Oxford ties-a going-away present, ordered from Bloomingdale's-that pinched his feet, and that scratchy suit of black broadcloth. Better than the uniform he had worn in Pennsylvania, or the muslin shirts and duck trousers on that hardscrabble farm in Franklin County and in those stinking, damp coal mines. <p> "Where is ... where are Mister Wooten and Mister Palazzo?" Daniel asked as they turned down Third Street. <p> "In their cups at the Main," Henry said with a laugh. "Some ink-slinger with the Times said he'd fill 'em in on the particulars. I paid five dollars for these." He patted his coat pocket. "Come on, I ain't never seen no real hangin' before." <p> <p> The deputy marshal at the gate scarcely glanced at either Henry and Daniel or the passes as they stepped inside the high-walled gallows area. Daniel had never planned on actually going to the execution. He thought he would slip away, but Cotton Henry never gave him the chance, and it finally registered with Daniel that Henry was just as scared, that he wanted, needed a companion to watch a man die. <p> <i>No.</i> Daniel stopped, staring at the huge gallows. <i>Not one man. Three.</i> <p> Another federal marshal pushed Daniel gently and pointed. "Reporters are over yonder," the lawman directed, and Daniel walked, or rather Cotton Henry practically dragged him, his spurs singing out some oddly merry tune, as he staggered toward the gathering of cigar-smoking men with pencils already scratching on their note pads. <p> Above the stench of tobacco, another smell, oddly familiar, triggered some old memories. <p> "Watch where you step!" a reporter called out, smiling. "Parker's deputies might be fine manhunters and peace officers, but they aren't worth a tinker's damn at mucking stalls." <p> "Huh?" Cotton Henry said, stepping into a mound of horse apples. <p> The reporter didn't bother explaining, and Cotton Henry, who didn't notice his misstep, forgot all about it, stopping and turning toward the gallows. Apparently Fort Smith wasn't quite as civilized as all those Eastern cities Daniel had seen, opting to use the compound as a stable when the gallows were not needed. <p> Daniel looked around. Men in suits circled the wooden scaffold, the backs of their heads somber. A doctor-well, he carried a black bag and hung a stethoscope around his neck-checked his stem-winder. Lawyers, or men he assumed were lawyers, chatted in whispers while a brute of a man waited on the top of the platform in front of three coiled nooses. Henry pointed at the man. <p> "That's ol' Maledon hisself," he said excitedly. "They say he ain't never botched no hangin'." <p> A priest began climbing the steps, reciting a passage from Psalms by memory, while a black marshal escorted the first manacled prisoner up the steps. To his surprise, Daniel found himself counting the steps. Twelve. Not thirteen. He remembered that half-dime novel the Lakota boy had smuggled into the barracks. Thirteen steps, but a man about to be hanged never stepped on the last one, fearing bad luck. The boys in the barracks had loved that line, the imagery. Every kid in school had thought the Beadle & Adams writer to have penned pure gospel in his macabre tale, but Daniel, with his own eyes, had just proven that story false. <p> "Charles Fenton!" a voice called out like some newspaper hawker as the condemned man stepped on the trap door beside the hangman. "Having been found guilty of the murder of Clark Edwards on the South Canadian River on the first of August, in the year of our Lord, Eighteen hundred and Eighty-five, and having been sentenced to death in the United States Court for the Western District of Arkansas, and having exhausted all appeals...." <p> "Damn." Cotton Henry jabbed Daniel's arm. "That's a darky they's hangin'." <p> Daniel took a deep breath. <p> "Do you have any last words?" <p> The colored man shook his head, and his knees buckled slightly when the hangman slipped a mask over his face, then the noose. <p> "Lute Mosley!" the hawker called out. <p> Daniel didn't realize the second man had already made it up the twelve steps. He wet his dry lips. Pencils scratched on paper as the reporters tried to capture the final words Lute Mosley, convicted and condemned for murdering someone-Daniel hadn't caught the name-on a drunken spree near Fort Gibson in 1882, sang out for mercy and begged God again for forgiveness, blaming his impending death on the evils of demon rum and reminding Marshal Williams of his promise to inform his dear mother in Little Rock of his departure and that he'd meet her on the streets of gold. He finished his speech with: "And damn you, Judge Parker, I'll see you in hell for this, you pompous Yankee bas...." <p> Maledon cut him off by jerking the black mask over his head, then roughly tightening the noose around his throat. <p> "The bloke's a mite confused," one reporter said. "First he's meeting his mother in heaven, and then he's seeing Parker in hell." <p> "Like God gives a damn what goes on in this hell-hole," another newspaperman commented. <p> Daniel decided to stare at his brown shoes. One string was untied, he noticed, and he started to bend down to tie it, and stay down, so he couldn't watch, when the shrill voice made him jump. <p> "Jimmy Comes Last, having been found guilty of the murder of Thomas A. Benton and Karen Benton, committed in the home of the deceased, in the vicinity of Gibson Station...." <p> He shot up, jaw slack, tried to swallow, but suddenly had no spit. Slimmer, much slimmer than Daniel remembered him. A federal lawman and a taller man, copper-skinned and wearing striped britches and a stovepipe hat, led Jimmy Comes Last to the final noose. The tall man kept whispering in Jimmy's ear. One lawman fastened straps above Jimmy's ankles, and, before Maledon covered the last condemned man's face, Daniel realized something else. Jimmy's braids had been cut off, his hair now as shorn as close as Daniel's. <p> The face vanished underneath a black sack, and the carnival hawker's voice ended, replaced by a new sound, a guttural chant, loud, powerful, from Jimmy Comes Last. <p> "What's he doin'?" Cotton Henry asked no one in particular. <p> Without realizing it, Daniel answered: "He's singing his death song." He had spoken louder than he had intended, and felt a handful of the newspapermen staring at him, saw from the corner of his eye Cotton Henry step away, studying him. Daniel didn't care. He wanted to look back at his feet, but couldn't move his eyes off the masked face of Jimmy Comes Last. <p> It ended quickly. Mercifully. <p> A mechanical <i>thud,</i> the sound of rushing wind, or so it seemed, and a violent, sickening snap. Almost as one. As if George Maledon, master executioner, had planned it that way. The rope above Jimmy Comes Last's head quivered, somebody spit, and Daniel looked at the dead man he had once known, his head tilted at a ghastly angle, and found himself wondering: <i>How does one travel to The Land Beyond The Sun with a neck so crooked?</i> <p> The doctor stepped underneath the platform to pronounce the three men dead. Not that there was any need. Anyone could tell that with a quick glance at the three masked heads visible above the platform. <p> "Poor bastards," said one reporter, sliding pencil and an unlit, soggy cigar into his inside coat pocket. <p> "Well," another said, "it's over. Let's have a snort at The Choctaw Club." <p> Yet it wasn't over. <p> A voice of anguish pierced the sudden silence, and a crowd parted, revealing a woman in a mix of calico and buckskins, standing at the foot of the gallows, wailing louder than Jimmy Comes Last had sung. She dropped to her knees, her whole body trembling. The tall, coppery man in the big hat started down the steps, but stopped, looking at the woman as she pulled a knife from a hidden sheath. <p> "How'd she manage to get that in here?" a deputy shouted, and started for her, but the man on the steps yelled at him to stop, and the lawman obeyed. <p> She sawed off her own hair, rather short anyway in the fashion for Comanche women, singing, crying, tossing her silver-streaked locks to the ground. She looked older than Daniel remembered, as he struggled for her name. Nasca. It meant Persimmon Tree. Seven years might have been seventy as much as she had aged. The blade bit into her left forearm. Again. And again. Rivulets of blood stained the cotton fabric, pooled on the dead grass beneath her. <p> "Stop her!" shrieked a bald man in a gray suit. "She's killing herself." <p> Surprisingly Cotton Henry stepped forward, his spurs providing some eerie harmony to Nasca's wails of heartbreaking pain. The cowboy, or whatever he was, no longer looked drunk, but sober, shamed, sick. <p> What shocked Daniel even more was when he reached out and took Henry's hand, pulled him back. He shook his head. "Leave her alone." He spoke in a dry whisper. <p> Nasca switched the knife to her other hand, cut three long gashes along her right arm, then, with a shriek, placed her hand on the ground and chopped off the tip of her little finger, then another. <p> "Jay-sus!" yelled a reporter, who spun, dropped, retched. <p> The grieving woman threw away the knife, buried her face in her bloody hands and, moments later, lifting her head, turning to stare at her son's body, choked out another cry. Removing his hat, the man on the steps completed his descent and walked toward the sobbing woman. <p> "She...." Cotton Henry blinked. "She needs...." <p> "She's in mourning." Daniel let go of Henry's hand, and headed toward Nasca. <p> One of the reporters spoke, his tone icy and rude. "For a Mex, Italian, Spaniard ... whatever you claim to be ... you seem to know a lot about those savages." <p> Stopping, Daniel turned and stared the journalist down. He swallowed, and spoke, his voice powered by the rage he had felt, the shame of his cowardice, and he summoned up the words, the language they had been beating out of him, trying to make him forget for years in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. <p> "I am," he said in Comanche, "Nermernuh!" <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Killstraight</b> by <b>Johnny D. Boggs</b> Copyright © 2008 by Johnny D. Boggs. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.