Read CHAPTER XI - THE PENALTY of Trail's End , free online book, by George W. Ogden, on ReadCentral.com.

Whatever the stranger’s intention toward the rough riders of the Chisholm Trail who had terrorized good and bad alike in Ascalon for a week, whether to roast them alive as they stood in a row with backs to the hitching rack, or to inflict some other equally terrible punishment; or whether he was simply staking them there while he cooked his breakfast cowboy fashion, not willing to trust them out of sight while he regaled himself in a restaurant, nobody quite understood. Mrs. Conboy’s exclamation appeared to voice the general belief of the crowd. Murmurs of disapproval began to rise.

One of the leading moralists of the town, proprietor of a knock-down-and-drag-out, was loudest in his protestations that such a happening in the public square of Ascalon, in the broad light of day, the assembled inhabitants looking on, would give the place a name from which it never would recover. This fellow, a gross man of swinging paunch, a goitre enlarging and disfiguring his naturally thick, ugly neck, had scrambled from his bed in haste at the thrilling of the general alarm of something unusual in the daylight annals of the town. His bare feet were thrust into slippers, his great white shirt was collarless, dainty narrow blue silk suspenders held up his hogshead-measure pantaloons. The redness of unfinished sleep was in his eyes.

“I tell you, men, this ain’t a goin’ to do this ain’t no town down south where they take niggers out and burn ’em,” he said. “I ain’t got no use for that gang, myself, but I’ve got the good of the town and my business to consider, like all the rest of you have.”

There must have been in town that day forty or more cowboys from Texas and the Nation, as the Cherokee country south was called. These for the greater part were still sober, not having been paid off, still on duty caring for the horses left behind them when the cattle were loaded and shipped, or for the herds resting and grazing close by after the long drive. They began to gather curiously around the fat man who had the fair repute of Ascalon so close to his heart, listening to his efforts to set a current of resentment against the stranger stirring in the awed crowd. They began to turn toward Morgan now, with close talk among themselves, regarding him yet as something more than a common man, not keen to spring into somebody else’s trouble and get their fingers scorched.

“What’s he going to do with them?” one of these inquired.

“Burn ’em,” the fat man replied, as readily as if he had it from Morgan’s own mouth, and as strongly denunciatory as though the disgrace of it reached to his fair fame and good business already. “You boys ain’t goin’ to stand around here and see men from your own country burnt like niggers, are you? Well, you don’t look like a bunch that’d do it you don’t look like it to me.”

“What did they do to him?” one of the cowboys asked, not greatly fired by the fat man’s sectional appeal.

Stilwell came loitering among them at that point, a man of their own calling, sympathies, and traditions, with the shoulder-lurching gait of a man who had spent most of his years in the saddle. He told them in a few feeling, picturesque words the extent of Morgan’s grievance against the six, and left it with them to say whether he was to be interfered with in his exaction of a just and fitting payment.

“I don’t know what he’s goin’ to do,” Stilwell said, “but if he wants to roast ’em and eat ’em” looking about him with stern eyes “this is his day.”

“If he needs any help there’s plenty of it here,” said a cowboy from the Nation, hooking his thumb with lazy but expressive movement under the cartridge belt around his slim waist.

The fat publican subsided, seeing his little ripple of protest flattened out by the spirit of fair play. He backed to the sidewalk, where he stood in conference with Tom Conboy, and there was heard a reference to niggers in Ireland, pronounced with wise twisting of the head.

Morgan selected, in the face of this little flurry of opposition and defense, a box from among the odds and ends brought him by the boys, sat on it facing his prisoners and broke bits of wood for a fire. People began pressing a little nearer to see what was to come, but when Morgan, with eye watchful to see even the shifting of a foot in the crowd, reached for his rifle and laid it across his lap, there was an immediate scramble to the sidewalk. This left twenty feet of dusty white road unoccupied, a margin on the page where this remarkable incident in Ascalon’s record of tragedies was being written.

Midway of his line of captives, six feet in front of the nearest man, Morgan kindled a fire, adding wood as the blaze grew, apparently as oblivious of his surroundings as if in a camp a hundred miles from a house. When he had the fire established to his liking, he took from his saddle an iron implement, at the sight of which a murmur and a movement of new interest stirred the crowd.

This iron contrivance was a rod, little thicker than a man’s finger, which terminated in a flat plate wrought with some kind of open-work device. This flat portion, which was about as broad as the span of a man’s two hands and perhaps six or eight inches long, appeared to be a continuation of the handle, bent and hammered to form the crude pattern, and the wonderment and speculation, contriving and guessing, all passed out of the people when they beheld this thing. That was a cattle country; they knew it for a branding iron.

Morgan thrust the brand into the fire, piled wood around it, leaning over it a little in watchful intent. This relic of his past he also had retrieved from the bottom of his trunk along with boots and spurs, corduroys and hat, and it had been a long time, indeed, since he heated it to apply the Three Crow brand to the shoulder of a beast. That brand, his father’s brand in the early days in the Sioux country where he was the pioneer cattleman, never had been heated to come in contact with such base skins as these, Morgan reflected, and it would not be so dishonored now if cattle were carrying it on any range.

When the Indians killed his father and drove off the last of the herd, the Three Crow became a discontinued brand in the Northwest. The son had kept this iron which his father had carried at his saddle horn as a souvenir of the times when life was not worth much between the Black Hills and the Platte. The brand was not recorded anywhere today; the brand books of the cattle-growers’ associations did not contain it. But it was his mark; he intended to set it on these cattle, disfiguration of face for disfiguration, and turn them loose to return smelling of the hot iron among their kind.

Sodden with the dregs of last night’s carousel, slow-headed, surly as the Texans were when Morgan encountered them, they were all alert and fully cognizant of their peril now. No rough jest passed from mouth to mouth; there was no sneer, no laugh of bravado, no defiance. Some of them had curses left in them as they sweated in the fear of Morgan’s silent preparations and lunged on their ropes in the hope of breaking loose. All but the Dutchman appealed to the crowd to interfere, promising rewards, making pledges in the name of their absent patron, Seth Craddock, the dreaded slayer of men.

Now and again one of them shouted a name, generally Peden’s name, or the name of some dealer or bouncer in his hall. Nobody answered, nobody raised hand or voice to interfere or protest. During their short reign of pillage and debauchery under the protection of the city marshal, the members of the gang had not made a friend who cared to risk his skin to save theirs.

To add to their disgrace and humiliation, their big pistols hung in the holsters on their thighs. People, especially the men of the range, remarked this full armament, marveling how the stranger had taken six men of such desperate notoriety all strapped with their guns, but they understood at once his purpose in allowing the weapons to hang under their impotent hands. It was a mockery of their bravado, a belittlement of their bluff and swagger in the brief day of their oppression.

Morgan withdrew the brand from the fire, knocking the clinging bits of wood from it against the ground.

The Dutchman was first in the line at Morgan’s right hand as he turned from the fire with the branding iron red-hot in his hand. Near the Dutchman stood Morgan’s borrowed horse, drowsing in the sun with head down, its weight on three legs, one ear set in its inherited caution to catch the least alarm. From the first moment of his encounter with these scoundrels Morgan had not lowered himself to address them a single word. Such commands as he had given them had been in dumb show, as to driven creatures. This rule of silence he held still as he approached the first object of his vengeance.

The Dutchman started back from the iron in sudden rousing from his brooding silence, fear and hate convulsing his snarling face, shrinking back against the timber of the hitching rack as far as he could withdraw, where he stood with shoulders hunched about his neck, savage as a chained wolf. He began to writhe and kick as Morgan laid hold of his neck to hold him steady for the cruel kiss of the iron.

The fellow squirmed and lunged, with head lowered, trying to get on the other side of the rack, his companions who were within reach joining in kicking at Morgan, adding their curses and cries to the Dutchman’s silent fight to save his skin. They raised such a commotion of noise and dust that it spread to the crowd, which pressed up with a great clamor of derision, pity, laughter, and shrill cries.

The cowboys, feeling themselves privileged spectators by reason of craft affiliation, made a ring around the scene of punishment, shouting in enjoyment of the spectacle, for it was quite in harmony with the cruel jokes and wild pranks which made up the humorous diversions of their lives.

“You’ll have to hog-tie that feller,” said one, drawing nearer than the rest in his interest.

Morgan paused a moment, brand uplifted, as if he considered the friendly suggestion. The Dutchman was cringing before him, head drawn between his shoulders, face as near the ground as he could strain the ropes which bound him. Morgan kicked the fellow’s feet from under him, leaving him hanging by his hands.

The spectators cheered this adroit movement, laughing at the spectacle of the Dutchman hanging face downward on his ropes, and Morgan, sweating in the heat of the fire and sun, exertion and passion, careless of everything, thoughtless of all but his unsatisfied vengeance, straddled the Dutchman’s neck as if he were a calf. He brought the iron down within an inch or two of the Dutchman’s face, calculating how much of the crude device of three flying crows he could get between mouth and ear, and as Morgan stood so with the hot iron poised, the Dutchman choking between his clamping knees, a hand clutched his arm, jerking the hovering brand away.

Morgan had not heard a step near him through the turmoil of his hate, nor seen any person approaching to interfere. Now he whirled, pistol slung out, facing about to account with the one who dared break in to stay his hand in the administration of a punishment that he considered all too inadequate and humane.

There was a girl standing by him, her restraining hand still on his arm, the sun glinting in the gloss of her dark hair, her dark eyes fixed on him in denial, in a softness of pity that Morgan knew was not for his victims alone. And so in that revel of base surrender to his primal passions she had come to him, she whom his heart sought among the faces of women; in that manner she had found him, and found him, as Morgan knew in his abased heart, at his worst.

There was not a word, not the whisper of a word, in the crowd around them. There was scarcely the moving of a breath.

“Give me that iron, Mr. Morgan!” she demanded in voice that trembled from the surge of her perturbed breast.

Morgan stood confronting her in the fierce pose of a man prepared to contend to the last extreme with any who had come to stay his hand in his hour of requital. The glowing iron, from which little wavers of heat rose in the sun, he grasped in one hand; in the other his pistol, elbow close to his side, threatening the quarter from which interference had come. Still he demurred at her demand, refusing the outstretched hand.

“Give it to me!” she said again, drawing nearer, but a little space between them now, so near he fancied her breath, panting from her open lips, on his cheek.

Silent, grim, still clouded by the vapors of his passion, Morgan stood denying her, not able to adjust himself in wrench so sudden to the calm plane of his normal life.

“Not for their sake for your own!” she pleaded, her hand gentle on his arm.

The set muscles of his pistol arm relaxed, the muzzle of the weapon dropped slowly with the surge of dark passion in his breast.

“They deserve it, and worse, but not from you, Mr. Morgan. Leave them to the law give me that iron.”

Morgan yielded it into her hand, slowly slipped his pistol back into the holster, slowly raised his hand to his forehead, pushed back his hat, swept his hand across his eyes like one waking from an oppressive dream. He looked around at the silent people, hundreds of them, it seemed to him, for the first time fully conscious of the spectacular drama he had been playing before their astonished eyes.

The Dutchman had struggled to his knees, where he leaned with neck outstretched as if he waited the stroke of the headsman’s sword, unable to regain his feet. The girl looked with serious eyes into Morgan’s face, the hot branding iron in her hand.

“I think you’d better lock them up in jail, Mr. Morgan,” she said.

Morgan did not reply. He stood with bent head, his emotions roiled like a turgid brook, a feeling over him of awakening daze, such as one experiences in a sweat of agony after dreaming of falling from some terrifying height. Morgan had just struck the bottom of the precipice in his wild, self-effacing dream. The shock of waking was numbing; there was no room for anything in his righted consciousness but a vast, down-bearing sense of shame. She had seen a side of his nature long submerged, long fought, long ago conquered as he believed; the vindictive, the savage part of him, the cruel and unforgiving.

Public interest in the line of captives along the hitching rack was waking in a new direction all around the sun-burned square. It was beginning to come home to every staid and sober man in the assembly that he had a close interest in the disposition of these men.

“I don’t know about that jail business and the law, Miss Retty,” said a severe dark man who pushed into the space where Morgan and the girl stood. “We’ve been dressin’ and feedin’ and standin’ the loss through breakin’ and stealin’ these fellers have imposed on this town for a week and more now, and I’m one that don’t think much of lockin’ them up in jail to lay there and eat off of the county and maybe be turned loose after a while. You’d just as well try to carry water up here from the river in a gunny sack as convict a crook in this county any more.”

This man found supporters at once. They came pushing forward, the resentment of insult and oppression darkening their faces, to shake threatening fists in the faces of the Dutchman and his companions.

“The best medicine for a gang like this is a cottonwood limb and a rope,” the man who had spoken declared.

It began to look exceedingly dark for the unlucky desperadoes inside of the next minute. The suggestion of hanging them immediately became an avowed intention; preparations for carrying it into effect began on the spot. While some ran to the hardware store for rope, others discussed the means of employing it to carry out the public sentence.

Hanging never had been popular in Ascalon, mainly because of the barrenness of the country, which offered no convenient branches except on the cottonwoods along the river. Wagon tongues upended and propped by neckyokes had been known to serve in their time, and telegraph poles when the railroad built through. But gibbets of this sort had their shortcomings and vexations. There was nothing so comfortable for all concerned as a tree, and trees did not grow by nature or by art in Ascalon. So there was talk of an expedition to the river, where all the six might be accommodated on one tree.

The girl who had taken the branding iron from Morgan and cooled the heat of his resentment and vengeance quicker than the iron had cooled, stood looking about into the serious faces of the men who suddenly had determined to finish for Morgan the business he had begun. Her face was white, horror distended her eyes; she seemed to have no words for a plea against this rapidly growing plan.

One of the doomed men behind her began to whimper and beg, appealing to her in his mother’s name to save him. He was a young man, whose weak face was lined by the excesses of his unrestrained days in Ascalon. His hat had fallen off, his foretop of brown hair straggled over his wild eyes.

“Come away from here,” said Morgan, turning to her now, his voice rough and still shaken by his subsiding passion. He took the hot iron from her, thinking of the trough at the public well where he might cool it.

“Don’t let them do it,” she implored, putting out her hands to him in appeal.

“Now Miss Rhetta, you’d better run along,” a man urged kindly.

Morgan stood beside her in the narrowing circle about the six men who had been condemned by public sentiment in less than sixty seconds and scarcely more words, the hot end of the branding iron in the dust at his feet. He was silent, yet apparently agitated by a strong emotion, as a man might be who had leaped a crevasse in fleeing a pressing peril, upon which he feared to look back.

She whom the man had called Rhetta picked up the young cowboy’s hat and put it on his head.

“Hush!” she charged, in reply to his whimpering intercession for mercy. “Mr. Morgan isn’t going to let them hang you.”

Morgan started out of his thoughtful glooming as if a reviving wind had struck his face, all alert again in a moment, but silent and inscrutable as before. He leaned his brand against the hitching post, recovered his rifle where it lay in the dust beside the scattered sticks of his fire, making himself a little room as he moved about.

Those who had talked of hanging the six now suspended sentence while waiting the outcome of this new activity on the part of the avenger. A man who came from somewhere with a coil of rope on his arm stood at the edge of the newly widened circle with fallen countenance, like one who arrived too late at some great event in which he had expected to be the leading actor.

Morgan began stripping belts and pistols from his captives, throwing the gear at the foot of the post where his branding iron stood. When he had stripped the last one he paused a moment as if considering something, the weapon in his hand. The girl Rhetta had not added a word to her appeal in behalf of the unworthy rascals who stood sweating in terror before the threatening crowd. But she looked now into Morgan’s face with hopeful understanding, the color coming back to her drained cheeks, a light of admiration in her eyes. As for Morgan, his own face appeared to have cleared of a cloud. There was a gleam of deep-kindling humor in his eyes.

“Gentlemen, there will not be any hanging in Ascalon this morning,” he announced.

He threw the last pistol down with the others, nodded Stilwell to him, whispered a word or two. Stilwell went shouldering off through the crowd. Morgan sheathed his rifle in the battered scabbard that hung on his saddle. In a little while Stilwell came back with a saw.

Morgan took the tool and sawed through the pole to which his captives were made fast. Stilwell held up the severed end while Morgan cut the other, freeing from the bolted posts the four-inch section of pole to which the cowboys were tied, leaving it hanging from the ropes at their wrists, dangling a little below their hands.

The late lords of the plains were such a dejected and altogether sneaking looking crew, shorn of their power by the hands of one man, stripped of their roaring weapons, tied like cattle to a hurdle, that the vengeful spirit of Ascalon veered in a glance to humorous appreciation of the comedy that was beginning before their eyes.

The cowboys who had stood ready a few minutes past to help hang the outfit, fairly rolled with laughter at the sight of this miserable example of complete degradation, through which the meanness of their kind was so ludicrously apparent. The citizenry and floating population of the town joined in the merriment, and the lowering clouds of tragedy were swept away on a gale of laughter that echoed along the jagged business front.

But the girl Rhetta was not laughing. Perplexed, troubled, she laid her hand on Morgan’s arm as he stood beside his horse about to mount.

“What are you going to do with them now, Mr. Morgan?” she inquired.

“They’re going to start for Texas down the Chisholm Trail,” he said, smiling down at her from the saddle.

And in that manner they set out from Ascalon, carrying the pole at their backs, Morgan driving them ahead of him, starting them in a trot which increased to a hobbling run as they bore away past the railroad station and struck the broad trampled highway to the south.

Afoot and horseback the town and the visitors in it came after them, shooting and shouting, getting far more enjoyment out of it than they would have got out of a hanging, as even the most contrary among them admitted. For this was a drama in which the boys and girls took part, and even the Baptist preacher, who had a church as big as a mouse trap, stood grinning in appreciation as they passed, and said something about it being a parallel of Samson, and the foxes with their tails tied together being driven away into the Philistines’ corn.

The crowd followed to the rise half a mile south of town, where most of it halted, only the cowboys and mounted men accompanying Morgan to the river. There they turned back, also, leaving it to Morgan to carry out the rest of his program alone, it being the general opinion that he intended to herd the six beyond the cottonwoods on the farther shore and despatch them clean-handed, according to what was owing to him on their account.

Morgan urged his captives on, still keeping them on the trot, although it was becoming a staggering and wabbling progression, the weaker in the line held up by the more enduring. They were experiencing in a small and colorless measure, as faint by comparison, certainly, as the smell of smoke to the feel of fire on the naked skin, what they had given Morgan in the hour of their cruel mastery.

At last one of them could stumble on no farther. He fell, dragging down two others who were not able to sustain his weight. There Morgan left them, a mile or more beyond the river, knowing they would not have far to travel before they came across somebody who would set them free.

The Dutchman, stronger and fresher than any of his companions, turned as if he would speak when Morgan started to leave. Morgan checked his horse to hear what the fellow might have to say, but nothing came out of the ugly mouth but a grin of such derision, such mockery, such hate, that Morgan felt as if the bright day contracted to shadows and a chill crept into the pelting heat of the sun. He thought, gravely and soberly, that he would be sparing the world at large, and himself specifically, future pain and trouble by putting this scoundrel out of the way as a man would remove a vicious beast.

Whatever justification the past, the present, or the future might plead for this course, Morgan was too much himself again to yield. He turned from them, giving the Dutchman his life to make out of it what he might.

From the top one of the ridges such as billowed like swells of the sea that gray-green, treeless plain, Morgan looked back. All of them but the Dutchman were either lying or sitting on the ground, beaten and winded by the torture of their bonds and the hard drive of more than three miles in the burning sun. The Dutchman still kept his feet, although the drag of the pole upon him must have been sore and heavy, as if he must stand to send his curse out after the man who had bent him to his humiliation.

And Morgan knew that the Dutchman was not a conquered man, nor bowed in his spirit, nor turned one moment away from his thought of revenge. Again the bright day seemed to contract and grow chill around him, like the oncoming shadow and breath of storm. He felt that this man would return in his day to trouble him, low-devising, dark and secret and meanly covert as a wolf prowling in the night.

The last look Morgan had of the Dutchman he was gazing that way still, his face peculiarly white, the weight of the pole and his fallen comrades dragging down on his bound arms. Morgan could fancy still, even over the distance between them, the small teeth, wide set in the red gums like a pup’s, and the loathsome glitter of his sneering eyes.