“The Hanging Tree did not move, did not waver, did not ask any questions, did not care, impartial as a door, decisive as a mob.”
Not much an Outlaw can do when he’s dangling with a noose around his neck besides curse whoever strung ‘em up, plead to whoever might hear & die.
This Outlaw was ripe evil, hanging heavy as an apple in winter, clinging to life even though his insides were festered & chewed by worms.
The Outlaw, whose boots & gun & horse had been taken, refused to give his life to his enemies as well. He wouldn’t give them anything: not his pleas & especially not his fear.
“They can have The Hangman’s ‘rection,” The Outlaw’s mind graveled, his brain swimming in the muck his thought was becoming.
The Outlaw awoke under The Hanging Tree; noose gone, the deadly gash across his knotted neck glistened like the shiny skin of a ripe Red Delicious.
The Outlaw looked down at his rough spun trousers, smiled dryly & said to the hot sky, “No shit on my pants, so I must be alive.”
He had no idea where he was; he had been blindfolded when they rode him out. The Outlaw just started walking, glad for his feet to be touching the hot, dusty ground, but ready to sack the first man he saw to steal his boots; man can only go so far with no boots.
There were scraggly foothills, hot windy sand & looming brush. The Outlaw walked all day toward the foothills. His bare feet were raw from the thirsty ground & dry rocks; he almost wished he were still hanging from the tree just to not walk any farther.
The Outlaw would have to walk until he reached a pass, found shelter, stayed warm, not die, tattered feet wrapped, nothing hungry attracted, not die, just rest.
The bloody sky warned him that evening & her chill were coming.
After long, cracked earth’s walk, The Outlaw crested a sandy hill & saw a man, face shaded by a large sombrero, sleeping under the silhouette of a long-shadowed tree. A gun & a wine skin hung from the man with the sombrero’s hip; he wore black leather boots.
The Outlaw crossed the dusty, sand blowing distance between hill & the vaguely familiar tree, blood soaked feet quiet, blood soaked mind awash with thirst.
The Mexican snored lightly.
The Outlaw advanced & slipped the well-oiled gun from the smooth leather of The Mexican’s holster. As The Outlaw drew back, The Mexican laughed lustily in his sleep.
The Outlaw pulled back, one hand holding the gun, the other reaching toward The Mexican’s embroidered, heavy heeled boot.
“No tocas, puto,” the words brushed through The Mexican’s tumbleweed mustache.
“I ain’t gonna touch you, partner,” lied the well-oiled Outlaw, shifting a few paces away.
“Bueno,” said The Mexican, “because then I’d have to kill you & I’ve done enough killing.”
The Outlaw, recognizing The Hanging Tree & something amiss, cocked the gun’s hammer real slow, “Never enough killing,” said The Outlaw, raising the gun he’d stolen from The Mexican.
The Mexican laughed. The shadow of the noose dangling from The Hanging Tree hung motionless around The Mexican’s bouncing head, sometimes a halo, sometimes the hangman’s rope.
The gun’s hammer sliced through The Mexican’s laugh & killed any other sound.
“What’s so funny? You drunk off whatever you got in that wine skin? Throw it here,” The Outlaw’s gun his punctuation.
The Mexican’s laugh erupted, spit wine at rain the sandy terrain.
The Outlaw fired & shot a hole through the brim of The Mexican’s sombrero. “I said what’s so funny, dang crazy Mexican? Why are you under this tree? Where you from?”
The smile was not wiped from The Mexican’s dirt stained face or his beady nighttime eyes. “ I’m not laughing at you, amigo, I’m laughing at the way of life. I am an evil man, like you, with a heart full of anger & a belly full of snakes. & here we meet, in the shade of The Hanging Tree, me the things you need to live & you with the power to take it all.”
“That’s sound reasoning, Mexican, but the only reason that matters belongs to the person’s holding the gun.” The Outlaw pointed the gun at The Mexican’s belly & blasted a round.
Before the bullet could find its lodge, The Mexican’s body first became an empty lake basin, his face dry & cracked, eyes an arid socket of empty bone & evaporated hope. The Mexican tried to move his jaw & it crumbled off, a chunk of sand that set the rest of The Mexican tumbling into a soft pile of the desert’s staple. The wine skin & the boots remained atop the pile of sand.
“Dust to dust,” said The Outlaw, lowering his gun & advancing; back under the shadow of The Hanging Tree, his face still carried the same cross composure.
Quick as a snakebite, The Outlaw reached for the wineskin & pulled the cork with his teeth; some skin from his scaly lips peeled off when he spit the cork at the sand drift that had been The Mexican now covering the roots of the shady Hanging Tree. The wine skin tilted up & The Outlaw drank deep the half skin of red wine; dark purple as a belly wound, small ravines of wine trickled down his cactus chin.
The Outlaw wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, dumped the sand out of The Mexican’s colorfully embroidered boots & held them to admire their craftsmanship. Devils danced & smiled in the flames leather & string work of the boots, hellfire from his soles. The Outlaw smiled at the devils dancing across the boots & their smiles matched, brothers in face & spirit. The boots slid on perfect, so tucking the gun in his pants & shouldering the empty wine skin, The Outlaw began to walk.
He wasn’t tired anymore & he wasn’t hungry & he wasn’t looking for shelter: He wanted to find the folks which had strung him up. Or a way away from The Hanging Tree.
The moon was high & shiny & did not remind The Outlaw of anything as he crossed the godforsaken expanse.
The Outlaw’s belly was a furnace, his anger coal shoveled in. The stony foothills a ghostly shadow, looming colorless shades, closer with every step The Outlaw took wearing the hellfire boots.
The brush was skeleton hands reaching out to grab the bottom of his trousers.
The Outlaw trudged over a shifty dune hill. From atop, he saw in the distance below him a man lazing under a tree.
No. The Outlaw’s mind wouldn’t let the sight soak in, rain atop a crusted ground. The Hanging Tree shaded the man. The Outlaw ended back where he began. The stars in the sky knew The Outlaw hadn’t walked in a circle. He had boots & he had a few shots in his gun & he was thirsty as hell, so The Outlaw walked forward across that dead vista. The moon moved with him, his ghostly hobble.
The man under The Hanging Tree stood with an unforgettable slouched silhouette, wreathed in tobacco smoke.
The Outlaw dutifully approached.
“Son, you were supposed to sell them ponies & come get me out of prison. I stood there with my neck in a noose still believing you’d come running up to save me.” The brambly old man was sincere, though his taught muscles & voice were tense.
“Yeah, well I decided it was best I keep that money & them ponies for myself & see you hang so’s I never have to see you again,” The Outlaw said to his daddy.
The two men were of the same age & height & tumbleweed continence.
The Outlaw’s daddy’s jab was fast, but The Outlaw knew the back of his daddy ‘s hand so raised his forearm to block. His daddy’s arrowhead knuckles, instead of smashing into the block, turned to a sand fist & dissipated in the arid environment. His daddy’s body crumbled away; a wicked hot wind came & dispersed, covering The Outlaw’s boots & exposing the far-reaching roots of The Hanging Tree.
The Outlaw buzzed his lips together to try & get rid of the sand that stuck to his crusty mouth & brushed the rest of himself, including his boots, best he could, “I imagined that’s how that might have happened, didn’t think of that sand part.”
The Outlaw walked on, away from The Hanging Tree, back toward the sandy distance & the stony mountains. He’d walked these deserts before, but that didn’t make them comfortable, only familiar; the always changing, always new beast.
The moon was high & The Outlaw’s shadow was an outline of the man, distorted across the sand.
The sandy hill was before him, the same hill though different, shifted, not far from what was always just over its precipice.
The Outlaw dug in his heels, pooled in blood against the devil’s leather & climbed over.
The Hanging Tree was inky black. The moonlight no longer bathed this place. The Outlaw could not quite make out what was lurking beneath The Hanging Tree’s barren branches.
He drew his gun & called out, “Who’s there?” His voice scratched the heavy night.
“Mister you wouldn’t know me if you saw me,” said an unfamiliar voice, not yet a man’s, not quite a boy’s. “I rode out with my brother. He joined a gang & came home with money. We didn’t have no money, so next time I rode out with him. Wasn’t no stand, wasn’t no shoot out,” the voice crackled like wet powder. “You shot us as we crossed the river. First, Buck Wasser’s head blew apart, then my brother’s.”
The Voice hushed into a whisper of sand blowing, spread thin, unnoticed around The Hanging Tree.
That voice in the darkness was right The Outlaw supposed, he had shot many a man without seeing his eyes, though he had no recollection of that particular instance.
The Outlaw did what he always done & walked on; the sand crunched under his boots was only noticed by the slight sound, texture lost between the boot’s thick leather & high arched sole which protected him from feeling.
The moon & the sun were switching heights & The Outlaw’s eyes were at ease. His face didn’t squint & his expression changed from a smooth grit to a sepia glow.
Hell, he was thirsty; his tongue was a sandy lizard’s back, the noose’s gash was crusted hard with the land’s grit. The Outlaw had strength still & wasn’t a complaining man, so he crossed the sand land & crested that damned sandy dune; the sun rose to meet him.
A beautiful Mexican woman with razor sharp cheeks sat under The Hanging Tree, the white of her cotton blouse glowed in the crisp morning light, the black of her long braided hair lost in the darkness of The Hanging Tree’s eternally shaded bark.
“Now I know I never hurt no woman,” The Outlaw said, stolen gun over his heart.
“Not me, my family,” the woman’s voice superciliously flowery in its rolling accent.
“You came for scalps, for selling as Indian. Your gang killed my strong brother, rode him down like a cow. My husband was a good man. He heard someone say your name, not too many men with a name like that. He followed after you & your gang of pigs; he left & I never saw him again. It was another group of men who got me… But I see you are wearing my husband’s boots so you must’ve crossed paths. Good, maybe he could pass happy.”
The Outlaw looked at the devils delighting in hellfire worked into the boot’s smooth hide.
“These boots belong to a man I met by this here Hanging Tree,” The Outlaw replied, unhinging his rusted shut jaw.
“Well he must have turned into a different kind of man if he met you here.”
“& you probably ain’t the lady you set out to be if you’re here,” said The Outlaw heated.
“I can’t make apologies for how I set out against the actions on me,” said The Mexican woman, her beauty fading into a ravined, sandy exterior, a dry riverbed across her face. Her wrists crumbled into her white cotton lap; under The Hanging Tree sat a pile of fine sand where a moment ago there had been intention.
The Hanging Tree did not move, did not waver, did not ask any questions, did not care, impartial as a door, decisive as a mob. The Outlaw raked his hands down his ravaged, yet fleshy face. “Yes! I done evil things!,” he kicked the sand & cotton that was The Mexican woman, “But I’ve had evil afflicted upon me as well!”
“Daddy lashed me like a pony, only Momma could make his stop. He took us out to cross the prairie in a caravan. The Indians rode on us like demons and sent embers to the canvas caravan tops. Those damn Indian demons took Momma, rode right off with her & left me with Daddy’s affliction & our new life.
“So I am evil! But what of the evil that has befallen me?” The Outlaw screamed at the tree, kicked up a personal sandstorm & waved his gun.
“I sent my Daddy to hell & as many of them Indians & Mexicans & anyone else I damn wanted to! I’m going to hell? I been in hell! Hell is the evil that can change a man’s life in a eyeblink.”
The Outlaw took a deep breath of hot, dry air that cleared his head as it always did.
A breeze blew his hair back & he felt like he was on his horse.
The Outlaw squatted down against The Hanging Tree & relaxed deep in the shadow of the noose.
A man with a cruel mustache came over the ridge & saw The Outlaw seated under The Hanging Tree. This man was thirsty & had no boots.
The Outlaw relaxed, his joints warm as the sand surrounding him, filling him with acceptance, hot, blowing, whipping, suffocating sand, the thing that comprises life.