April 10, 1878
The crowd was small for a hanging. Quieter than usual, as if they all knew justice would not be served today.
Michael Archer found it hard to look at the young man before him. Ben Carstairs, only twenty-two, stood like a boy grown too tall, too soon. Each strand of his sandy hair grew as if it had a mind of its own. Handcuffs encircled his fine-boned wrists in loops of heavy iron. His lips quivered. Fear raged in his brown eyes.
"You believe I didn't do it, don't you?"
Michael's throat tightened. He nodded. Many hours with the boy had convinced him of the young man's innocence.
Ben gulped air and sighed. His shoulders sagged. He lifted his cuffed hands and opened a palm."Give this to my father when you see him. It was my ma's, and I wanted something of hers when he threw me out. Tell him I'm sorry."
It was the silver Celtic cross Ben had worn on a leather thong around his neck. Only slight traces of the delicate engravings remained. Michael rubbed the cross as he had seen Ben do hundreds of times and closed his fist over the treasured token. He slipped it into his shirt pocket, buttoned the flap, and patted the cross with his hand."I will."
Sheriff Gideon Parsons spoke from behind Ben."It's time, son."
Ben swallowed, then straightened."Thank you, Michael."
Michael nodded, unable to speak.
Gideon stepped in front and slipped a black hood over Ben's head. The boy whimpered as Gideon put the noose in place and pulled it snug. He squeezed Ben's shoulder."It'll be fast." His voice cracked.
The trapdoor sprang down. Michael couldn't look. A short, muffled sound from inside the hood ended in silence.
Michael opened his eyes. The body swayed in a gentle arc, the head at an unnatural angle.
Gideon stood on the other side of the trapdoor, his hand still on the release lever, knuckles white, eyes downcast. He shook his large head and slid his hand from the lever. Wiping his face with a red bandanna, he motioned to the undertakers, who stood like vultures beside the gallows. They moved with well-practiced efficiency to free the noose, lower the body into a plain pine casket, and load it onto the hearse.
Gideon walked over and stood next to Michael."I feel rotten about this. It shouldn'ta happened."
"I know. Thanks for asking the judge to reconsider." Michael gazed out past the town toward the fields and the low-lying hills in the distance. Heaviness enveloped his heart like a wet blanket.
Gideon snorted."Fat lot of good it did. The judge wanted proof, and we didn't have any."
"But you tried. Thanks for believing me."
"Well, the whole thing never added up. It was either a frame-up or bad timing on young Carstairs's part, but I couldn't prove his innocence." He shook his head."This is one of those times I hate this job."
Excerpted from JOURNEY TO RIVERBEND © Copyright 2011 by Henry McLaughlin. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.