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The old, wooden bench felt rough beneath my palms. The room was quiet. No one really had anything to say. It was obvious none of us wanted to be here. 

“Jacob Jenson!” A voice called from the hallway.

The poor boy a couple seats down stood up shakily. He looked like he was about to start crying. Someone came from the hallway to help him outside. He resisted, but barely. He’d all but given up at this point. I shook my head as he walked away.

“They just keep gettin’ younger and younger here, don’t they?” A voice next to me asked.

I turned toward it. It was a rough, scraggly looking old man. His clothes were well-worn, and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in about a week. It was a little surprising. Usually, everyone tried to look their best here. He smiled as if reading my thoughts.

“Surprised I ain’t dressed up like some prissy-boy?” He asked.

I shrugged. “Well, you don’t gotta be prissy, but shouldn’t you at least wear somethin’ clean?”

“Bah!” He said, spitting on the ground. “Why the hell does it matter? You really think you’re gonna get any extra credit for dressin’ up?”

“I guess not,” I sighed, “but I think it helps. Makes me feel like I got a chance out there.”

“Boy, if you’re here, that means all your chances are long gone,” he chuckled. 

“Ain’t that the truth,” I said, shaking my head.

The crowd suddenly roared from outside. A couple guys flinched at the sound. The old man chuckled again.

“Sounds like he put on a good show for ‘em,” he said, leaning back and crossing his arms.

“A good show?!” I cried indignantly.

“Get the bees outta your bonnet, boy,” he mumbled. “All this is is one giant show. They’re puttin’ on a hell of a performance for a blood-thirsty crowd. The sooner you accept that the sooner you come to terms with it.”

“What if I don’t want to perform?” I asked. “What If I wanna go out with just a shred of dignity left?”

“Dignity?” He scoffed. “You’re sittin’ there with your hair slicked down with water,  wearin’ a suit that don’t fit, lookin’ like a scared little schoolboy, and you think you got some dignity in that? Now that’s a show.”

I looked down at the floor again. I didn’t want to admit it, but he was right. Who was I trying to kid? Dignity? I was scared, terrified. I didn’t know what was going to happen when I went out there. I could only imagine the worst, and what if the worst was somehow even worse than I thought. I feared the things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine. 

Suddenly, he reached over and slapped his hand on my shoulder.

“Ah, I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I know this can’t be easy for you young fellas. I’ve been waitin’ on this day for a long time, but you? You probably had things you wanted to do still, right?”

“A few,” I sighed.

“How’d a kid like you end up here anyway?” He asked. I hesitated. “Might be your last chance to tell someone. Even if it’s just some dirty old coot.”

“You might be right,” I said, smiling weakly. “You know, I never wanted to be here. The reason this suit don’t fit? It was my daddy’s. He wore it here too. Hell, maybe he sat in this very spot for all I know.”

“Damn, if that ain’t somethin’ else,” he said, shaking his head.

“My daddy was a good man, but he made some bad choices,” I admitted. “They say the apple don’t fall far from the tree. Well, he tried. When I fell he tried to chuck me as far away as he could throw. Kept me as far away from him as he could.

When I was a kid, I thought he must have hated me. He never wanted me around when he was workin’, never wanted my help. Sittin’ here now, I realize how much he must have loved me to keep me away like that. He never wanted me to end up here. 

I didn’t get that as a kid though. I thought I could win him over by bein’ like him, but the more like him I was, the more disappointed he was. I figured if I tried harder, eventually he’d accept me. Lookin’ back, I can see why he got so upset at me for the things I was doin’. All that work he put into keepin’ me safe, and I wasted it. I let him down.”

“Bah!” He scoffed. “I doubt that. Your kid’s your kid. A good man can’t hate ‘em for nothin’. I got three of the lousiest bastards to ever walk this damn Earth, wouldn’t trade ‘em for nothin’. Promise your pa wouldn’t neither.”

I felt a lump in my throat. Strange how some scruffy, old guy could make me feel that way. He grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it.

“Did you see your pa when he went out there?” He asked. I nodded. “How did he look?”

“What? Why-”

“Just tell me, how did he look?” He asked again.

I thought about it, cringing at the memory. “Scared. Like a cornered animal. No place left to go.”

“Well, boy, you said he didn’t want you to be like him. Now’s your chance,” he said, shrugging. “They want you to be scared. That’s your role in this show. That’s why that last boy got the crowd roarin’. He played the part they wanted. You wanna make your pa proud? Do what he couldn’t. Walk out there and don’t show ‘em a lick of fear.”

“Paul Smitty!” The voice hollered from down the hall.

I stood up slowly and took a deep breath. I turned to the old man and reached out my hand.

“Well, that’s me. Wanna tell me your name? Maybe I can find you wherever we end up,” I suggested.

He chuckled and reached out to shake my hand. He smiled at me kindly.

“John Charles, but everyone calls me ‘Chuck’. Well, they used to anyway,” He said, shaking his head.

The man came out to lead me down the hall. I followed him without a fight.

“See you on the other side, Chuck,” I called to him.

“Say ‘hi’ for me, Smitty!” I heard him holler back.

The man led me out into the open square. All around me the crowd booed and tossed things at me as I walked up the platform steps. Just like Chuck said. A show for a bloodthirsty crowd. The Sheriff came over and slipped the rope around my neck.

“Paul Smitty, you have been found guilty of the murder of Henry Callow and the theft of his prize horse,” the Sheriff said gruffly. “Any last words before we send you to your Maker?”

The crowd went dead silent. This was what they wanted. The begging for forgiveness, the tears, the fear in my face. Well, I wasn’t going to give it to them. Instead, I gave the Sheriff a big smile.

“Chuck says hi.”

August 25, 2020 13:40

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1 comment

Jane Andrews
20:29 Sep 03, 2020

Great job not only in building suspense but also in showing the blossoming friendship of the two main characters.


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