Minders and idlers began to talk. The result was that in the afternoon, a mob began to form.* The cottonwood were on their knees that spring, bending to lick Shoal Creek dry, for it had been a dry winter. Beyond the creek bed, lead tailings lay together in blackened clumps. It was said the town’s good fortune was good and spent. Land pocked by abandoned mines and sinkholes. Industriousness turned mean. At the rail yard, the great arms of the switching station were directing ambitions elsewhere, west, as far as Galveston, and Chicago to the east. It was a saloon town, a gambling town, a licentious town— a town in need of saving. Which is all what brought me there, fishing for souls.
A mob once started, never knows when to quit. South of the town, where the Silver and Shoal Creeks meet, there is a glade. Hard, fine grained bedrock and not a single tree. A gloss of yellow blooms in spring.
It was a place fit for baptizing, if the waters were high, as fine as any. A vast, fine place.
A great many men are good, not because they want to be, but because they have to be. If it were not for the law, a man’s life would not be worth fifteen cents.
In the hands of men, the law may be either sword or shield. Of my own father I once wrote, honourable man. Yet, the son of an abolitionist, he took four in slavery. Two men. Two women. From his own family, never separated. From my own family, never separated. Own to never. Gone to forever. I saw at least two women leave their babies in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the city, while they climbed up in a dray to watch the proceedings. Hundreds twisted in the streets like snakes. The babies, fair and squalling, their mothers’ skirts hiked to their knees. The babies fretting, the shouting ringing in their tiny ears. Their tiny ears, so shapely and small and tender and, once, hopeful. I never dreamed that men and women could be such demons as they proved themselves to be. Always, even before my own salvation, I aspired to be good. To this day I can shut my eyes and hear the sound of that sledge hammer on that steel door.
What is a hammer to a door? It is nothing, if the door is steel and is in need of only a key and one is procured. The deed takes flight then, like a scavenger bird that has no appetite for the living. Only dead and more dead. And more. The vigilante takes from the law’s open hands. He takes and takes and takes. He takes what he is given. I cannot tell you a thing about the man himself, except his want for justice. And his want for naught. Not to be tricked, not to be tricked to that town by slick agents of some or t’other, not to be promised good wages, not to have happened upon that place. I will give him only what I have which is so little. I will not even say death. I will not tell you that he died at the hands of those vigilantes. I will say that he is gone. And they are villainous men and women but one. There was one incident which occurred that should be broadcast to the world. A physician by the name of May, a local physician with a long sharp knife cut the body down and cut the rope all in little pieces with the intention that it be all used up. At risk of his own life, he did what no other would do, not the policemen, not the mothers on the dray with their babes left in the streets, not the snaking crowds. Not justice. Conscience.
That was a wild night in that town.
A mob once started, never knows when to quit. It will storm at the rope that is cut into little pieces and it will storm at the man who is dead and it will storm at the men who are not dead. It will storm upon its own open hands, shake them into fists. Like a scavenger bird, it will want to feed. Even though babes need feeding and there is plenty of other doing that needs to be done, that could be done, and praying. But it hungers and is not satisfied. It burns until everything is burning, until everything is burned.
Very little remains.
Some courage. One of those policemen set himself and his gun down at the doorway of a friend and that friend was left unmolested.
What I wrote. What I saw with my own eyes, what burned into my own eyes, what ruined them, what rang in my ears and ruined them, what rings in me still. My own words.
The glade. The glade that I have written of is there. Still. Yellow flowers still blooming and continuing to bloom that shining yellow, the kind of yellow that makes men and women smile, makes them believe in baptism.
It is a fine place, a vast, fine place. And demons.
*[Italicized lines borrowed from the unpublished autobiography of the author’s great-grandfather, Rev. William Chrisman Lyle (1860-1943).]
Melany Franklin is a lawyer and emerging writing living in Toronto, Canada. Melany is a recipient of the 2021 Penguin Random House Canada (PRH) Student Award for Fiction (Finalist) and published by PRH in the anthology Three. In 2019, Melany received the Janice Colbert Poetry Award (runner-up prize) from the University of Toronto.