(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is actually based off of a figure that appears whenever I have fever dreams. Every. Single. Time. For the last five years.)
THE GALLOWS MAN
He follows them.
They always think that they can run, that they can find a way past him, that he can’t catch up.
But they’re wrong.
Terry lit another cigarette, one eye on the rearview as he drove. “Shut up,” he snarled toward the backseat. The whimpering decreased in tone. He glanced at the road ahead, then back at the rearview. “Shut up or else I’ll make you shut up,” he threatened again before turning back to the road.
The gallows loomed at him, and he couldn’t stop. The car’s brakes screamed as he tried, the back seat passengers flung forward into the seats, the car whipping around as it hit the gallows, boards crashing through the windshield and piercing the car’s body.
Slowly, Terry lifted his head. It might have been minutes later, it might have been hours. He couldn’t tell. He reached for the .38, turned to the backseat, where the hostages were. Two pretty little teenagers and a little boy. They were still there. Good. Seemed to still be breathing. Even better. He put the gun back down and took a look out the shattered windshield.
Dry desert stared back at him, empty, desolate, nothing for a hundred miles or further.
Where were the boards? He wondered for a moment. What happened to the gallows? If it hadn’t been there, if he hadn’t hit it, what had broken the windshield, the passenger side window?
“Fuck,” he whispered, his voice dry as the sand around them. “Fuck this noise.” He turned the key, and the starter whirred and clicked, but didn’t catch. He tried again, and again, before hitting the steering wheel. “Shit!” He shouted.
He’d been very careful to keep his gaze forward, but now he turned to his left, and saw only the desert. To his right, the same. One of the children moaned in the back. “Yeah,” he answered. “What you said.”
“He’s coming,” the boy answered, his eyes glittery with fever. “I can see him. He’s coming.”
“Fuck that noise. Shut up.” Terry tried to open the door, but it was bent, warped in the frame, and fought him, trying to stay closed.
“He’s coming,” the boy whispered again, his eyes falling shut. Terry bent back to the door, pushing as hard as he could, wanting out of the metal coffin. The kids were as good as dead, and that was both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding’em and piss breaks. Bad because he’d been using them as hostages the last two days, and the cops wouldn’t have a reason not to shoot at him now.
“S’okay,” he said to himself. “It’ll be okay.” He shoved again at the door and it finally gave, shrieking metal protesting as it bent against itself. He stumbled and fell out onto the fiery blacktop, scorching and scraping his forearms. He scrambled to his feet, sore but whole. Now he could look into the backseat proper.
The girls were covering the boy with their bodies, protective even near death. Something — whatever the fuck he’d run into, he guessed, had knocked the one with red highlights in the head, and she’d bled everywhere. The other one, the blonde, was just…she wouldn’t be moving anytime soon, he reckoned. And the boy beneath them. He’d been sick anyway. Terry turned his head, went to the trunk. It popped open easily, and he hauled out the three duffels and a couple bottles of water.
The man was standing next to the car when Terry closed the trunk again, and Terry jumped. “The fuck, old dude,” Terry stammered, “where’d you come from?”
The old man was a caricature of old men; he was tall, dressed in a grey suit that looked as if he’d just walked out of a western. His nose jutted out of his face, his thin lips were pressed together tightly, and he laid one hand on the windowsill of the back door before glaring at Terry.
“Yeah, they need help, man,” Terry said, backing up a step. He shifted the duffels a little higher on his arms. “You go get help for’em, okay? That’s what I was about to do.” He started around the passenger side. He could reach in and get the gun, lay the old dude out, and be on his way.
He took two steps more before it was all gone. The car, the road, everything. All there was was the gallows before him. “Shit,” he squealed, and turned to run, but the old man caught his arm and pulled him along.
“Lord have mercy on this man,” the old dude shouted, and Terry’s arms wouldn’t listen to him no more. He watched the duffel bags fall away from him, even as his bootheels hit the first step of the wooden platform.
“Have mercy, Lord, though he has brought carnage and death unto others,” came the reply of a thousand voices, “and into Your city.”
“Have mercy, Lord, though he has been the rapist of two of Your children,” the man intoned, and Terry found his feet coming up the second step of the platform.
“Have mercy, Lord, though he was the death of Neil Hamilton, Your servant.”
“Christ have mercy on this man,” and the third step, and oh, no, no, he was walking up them on his own now, the old man was at the top.
“Christ have mercy on Terry Word, yes, Lord.” How’d they know? How’d they know his name?
“Angels and ministers of grace, You have sent, O Lord, to protect Halliday from folks like him.”
“And so do You show Your favor, O Lord, unto the blessed.” Fifth step, and he tried to throw his body weight backwards. He was sure if he could get off the wood, he’d be all right, he’d be able to run, but his body was not cooperating, not even a twitch.
“For Your favor, O Lord, we give thanks. For Your mercy everlasting unto everlasting, we give thanks. For the grace You have given unto me, to be the vessel of Thy vengeance, I give thanks, O Lord.”
Eighth step, eye level with the platform. The old man had his head thrown back now, his long grey hair whipping in the wind, his arms outstretched as if he was embracing the sky. And still his feet were lifting and falling, ninth step, tenth.
“Thirteen steps to the gallows, Terry Word. Thirteen steps to your fate,” the faceless choir intoned, and Terry whispered, “Jesus.”
“Is Lord,” the old man said. “Now and forevermore. Hear, brethren, hear the truth, that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess it, even the tongue of a murdering rapist. But He is merciful, Terry Word. He is merciful.”
Standing now at the top step, on the platform, and the old man comes close now,takes him by the arm and leads him to the center. “You murdered in cold blood a man who offered you a ride. You took his daughters’ innocence. You ignored the pleas of his children, to seek help for his son, who was ill. All of this you did in Jonah County, Terry Word, and that was your mistake. For in 1894, God sent the Gallows Man to protect His people here in Jonah County. And He has never lifted His hand from those people.”
The noose settled around Terry’s neck, and the man tautened it. “Have you any last words, Terry Word?”
Terry shook his head. This was a dream, had to be a dream. He’d crashed and hit his head, and now he was dreaming.
“So be it. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
A moment later, the trap fell, and Terry’s body dropped, his neck cracking at the end of his fall. “And so ends the life of yet another ungrateful wretch,” Jonah Hawthorn intoned. “Thank You, Lord, for allowing me to continue to protect Your people.”
Trooper Caleb McDonald was just finishing up with a speeding ticket when the old man walked up. “Sir,” the old man said, “sir, I’m right sorry to bother you, but there’s some kids in trouble over on Highway 29. Just past mile marker 33. Hurry, please, sir.” Caleb never got a real good look at the fella, but he saw the grey clothes, saw it was an old man, and knew, just knew, not to look any closer. He’d grown up in Jonah County, after all, and he knew The Gallows Man didn’t take to staring.
Terry Word’s body was found a mile away from the car. No one spoke about the rope burn around his neck. “Exposure,” was written as his cause of death.