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Red Water

The Execution


A wind was blowing that day, old and wintry and mean. It came up in the morning, arriving from the southeast, and by noon it had gained in force and shook the heaviest branches of the trees and caused them to saw back and forth with a low groaning noise. Patches of snow still lay on the hills, old grainy slubs nestled in crevices on the north-facing slopes and thinner white lines running in scallops along the northern ridges.

When he sat on his coffin, the wind ruffled his hair and lifted the flaps of his jacket and they fluttered like the wings of some small black bird clinging to his breast.

Meadowlarks broke into song occasionally, and the wind continued to blow in heavy gusts as more men arrived, riding singly down out of the hills, or coming in groups of two or three, like pale apparitions.

He could hear the sound of the water in the stream.

Where the cows had trod the muddy ground they left hoofprints the size of dinner plates and the earth had now dried and the path was left uneven and hard to walk. The wind made it unpleasant to be out of the shelter of the wagons and many of the men stood with their backs against the running boards or set their shoulders against the warmth of their horses.

In spite of the cold, it felt like spring would soon arrive. All the signs were present--the hopeful notes of the meadowlarks, the grass greening up in the meadow, and the patches of bare earth on the hillsides. There was a feeling some corner had been turned and winter was behind them now, even though the wind still held such bitterness. The sky, though not really overcast, was covered with a white film of clouds, thin and insubstantial, like a layer of gauze stretched over the palest blue eye, and this lent the day a muted feeling. It seemed like a time between seasons--not yet spring, though spring had officially arrived two days earlier, and no longer winter, though something of its recent chill still carried on the air. He noticed the photographer standing downwind of his portable tent and he also noticed how the tent billowed in the surging wind like a living breathing thing.

He could hear a hammering sound of a woodpecker working away at the trunk of a gnarled and misshapen cottonwood tree whose lower branches had grown so thick the main trunk had broken and the heavy limbs now bent to earth. All along the stream the spidery and tangled old cottonwoods had been stunted from drought years and grown more horizontal than vertical, and yet they had managed to hang on to the stream bank, sending out new shoots and new growth each year, shedding the heaviest of limbs to wind and the forces of gravity.

All morning the birds called from the east and the west sides of the stream and the silence seemed magnified by the pale and colorless sky, the dry brown hills, the ridges and north-facing canyons scalloped with the thinning snow. In another month the sedges would green up along the banks of the creek and the snow would be gone and the deer that bedded down here now would leave the meadow and begin working their way back up among the cedar-covered hills.

By June it would be so hot and dry the grasses would begin to dry out and the creek would fall, the once deep water lowering and eddying in pools deep enough to hold fish in the shadows.

They killed him before noon.

The wind was still blowing.

Both spring and winter were on the air.

He had been brought to this spot by the marshal who had befriended him during his long incarceration and who had been helping him maintain his spirits during his first trial, as well as his second.

He arrived about an hour before the actual execution and he appeared to be tired yet calm.

The firing squad was not visible. The five men were hidden behind the canvas cover in the back of a wagon drawn up before the man sitting on his coffin, and they fired their shots through an opening in the canvas.

Before that, however, before the shots were fired, he was allowed to converse with several men who had come to witness the execution.

His photograph was taken by the man who had been pacing near his tent and he asked the photographer to deliver a copy of his likeness to his remaining wives. When that request had been made and agreed to, he rose and said a few last words to the crowd that had assembled to witness his execution.

His voice broke only once and that was when he mentioned his wives and his children who, he said, would be left unprotected in this world.

A minister knelt with him and prayed.

He sat again on his coffin. He took off his coat and handed it to a young man standing nearby with the request that it be given to one of his sons. He said he could see no use in destroying a perfectly good jacket.

He was blindfolded but, at his request, his hands remained unbound.

When the blindfold was in place, he called out to his executioners in a strong and steady voice: Center my heart, boys. Don't mangle my limbs.

Five shots rang out, and then another five coming so close together they sounded like one slightly drawn-out explosion.

He fell back upon his coffin, dead.

Before his death and after, the birds fell silent.

The sun was the same metallic white as the sky, only brighter, far brighter.

The shots had pierced his heart and the blood flowed freely from the wounds in his chest and back. They laid him on the ground and removed the blindfold and someone thought to close his eyes. After a while the blood slowed and it no longer pulsed and gurgled but rather it came in sporadic and weak trickles.

He was placed in his coffin. His hands were crossed over his chest, the big work-reddened knuckles sticking up in hardened knobs. The photographer took one last picture of the dead man lying in the pine box and then the lid was nailed on and the coffin was loaded in a wagon. The wagon, pulled by a pair of white mules and driven by the marshal, lost no time in setting off, much to the disappointment of those in the crowd who would have preferred a longer look at the deceased.

The photographer was the last to leave the meadow. When the others had gone he stayed behind and developed his plates and then he packed up his camera and his Carbutt's Portable Developing Box, strapping everything onto his mule with an ease born of much practice. By then the light was falling, raking across the meadow in slatted bands of light and dark, and the wind had almost ceased. He took one last look around him before heading up the trail.

Nothing good ever happened here, he thought.

And nothing good ever will again.

It is a place forever now of death.

He knew that the man had died for his own sins, and he had taken on the sins of those around him and he had died for those too. He had died for a whole people: he had been made the goat, and there wasn't anyone the photographer knew who didn't believe that.

The marshal drove the body to Cedar City and delivered it to the sons, who set out the following morning for Panguitch, where they intended to bury their father. The woman who accompanied them could have been their mother, but she was not, though she had nurtured them often enough in the course of their short lives. They drove an open wagon, the two boys sitting up front on the wagon seat and the woman nestled in back next to the coffin. The wagon was drawn by two red mules that were related by blood as well as temperament. The worn trail rose up through the dense trees once it left the valley floor. There were hills all around. Hills covered in cedars and snow.

To the south the morning light was bright yet overcast. In among the cedars near the road, patches of snow lay clean and white against the red earth and already the sage and rabbitbrush looked a bright green. Where the sage grew up, the snow had receded, creating depressions and dark moist wells, as if the plants themselves, in all their newfound life, had radiated warmth and melted the snow around them.

On the right side of the road, where the bank sloped to the north, the snow clung to the rocks and ravines and in places had drifted to considerable depths.

They came up into the hills, the road a long slow ascending route past the stands of orange and maroon willows, and here the rabbitbrush had grown tall in places, almost as tall as the willows, and through a gap where the hills closed in before opening up again, the vista afforded a view of the wide valley and revealed a settlement. Through this gap the boys could see the farms stretching out from the little cluster of houses and the dark shapes of the animals in the fields. Everything presented such a peaceful scene against the backdrop of red cliffs and the dark cedar-covered mountains, with the snow-clad ridges of the Kolob Range stretching to the south. The clouds had drifted into hard smooth shapes, dense and white, with flat heavy bottoms. They looked like solid domed objects hanging in the sky.

The road crossed over the creek and the boys studied the brownish red water breaking over the rocks beneath the wagon wheels. Everything was red. Red or orange or some shade thereof--the water, the stream banks, the earth, and the rocks that rose up from the fresh greenness and the cedar-dotted slopes. All red, shades of rust and dried blood. Everywhere the snow was melting and trickling down the rich red earth. And everywhere the rock columns rose up and formed towers and pinnacles and other fanciful shapes.

There were ice falls in shadow and water flowing everywhere, red with the burden of the clayey soil.

The higher they rose the more the forest thickened. They passed into tall pines. Water oozed out of rock ledges. The snow around them grew deeper and deeper, and they came upon stands of silvery bare aspen and shining dark rocks slick with the water.

The air grew much colder, chilled by the heavy layers of snow now surrounding them. The boy who had charge of the mules said, Whoa there, Sadie, whoa Sam, and drew the animals up, and the other boy sighed and said, Why'd you stop for? The first boy, the older of the two, said that he was cold and he asked his brother to pass him one of the blankets folded in the back and the boy did so. They both wrapped themselves in brightly colored Navajo blankets and then the oldest boy clucked to the mules and they dug in, their hooves gaining purchase against the steep, gravelly road.

Later on they stopped to let the mules rest. The boys got out of the wagon and stood looking up at some spires of red sandstone surrounded by dark pines. Far below them they could see a place where the mountain formed an amphitheater with sheer walls on three sides and out of this great bowl rose dozens of twisted rock spires. The spires stood like figures in a play, wrapped in cloaks of orange and red, all enclosed within a hard stage. Hundreds of crows were flying in circles above the spires.

Look at that, the older boy said to his brother.

I am looking, he replied.

I mean all those black birds.

They're crows not blackbirds.

I know they're crows. I just meant their color.

If you knowed they were crows how come you didn't just say crows?

Give it up, would you? the older boy said and walked away.

During the stop the woman did not leave the wagon but sat with one hand upon the coffin and the other balled into a fist in her lap, her dark eyes looking straight ahead and her mouth drawn into a somber, fixed frown, but as the boys prepared to set off again she asked them to wait and climbed down from the wagon and walked into the woods. She came back shortly and took up her place beside the coffin again and they moved on to the sound of hooves clattering against rock.

The higher they climbed the farther behind them they were able to put the valley they had just left and all its cruel events, and for this they were grateful. When they broke out onto the level at Webster's Flat they let the mules rest again and this time they all left the wagon and sat upon some dry logs and ate the food they'd brought with them.

The sky doesn't get any bluer, the older boy said at one point in order to break the silence. He gazed up through the trees, and his brother and the woman gazed up also, though neither made any comment.

When they had finished eating, the younger boy made a few snowballs and threw them one by one at the stump of a lightning-struck pine, missing it each time, and the older boy, watching from a distance, laughed and told him he was a bad shot just as one of the balls hit its mark.

Up where the pines began to stunt he pulled the mules over again and climbed down to relieve himself. Now the air was very cold. They had almost reached the summit. He stood facing south then turned out of the breeze so the wetness wouldn't blow back upon him. The mountain dropped away sharply. It did not descend at once to the desert floor but rather rolled away in plateaus and ridges, pine covered and falling away from him and the pine and the aspen were intermingled, spread out evenly over the slopes except in the places on the bare ridges and where little meadows created openings in the trees. He could see the line where the snow ended. He could see a butte in the distance, shaped like a house that stood solitary, backed up against the valley, so that what he saw now, what he was seeing, were the backs of the peaks he had looked at driving north yesterday toward Cedar City, when he had left the settlement. No time seemed to have passed since then and yet he was here, with his brother, and with the woman who was not his mother, and with his dead father. That was his father in the box in the wagon, he reminded himself, as if this was something he might have forgotten.

Excerpted from Red Water © Copyright 2002 by Judith Freeman. Reprinted with permission by Anchor Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved.

Red Water
by by Judith Freeman