It was nearly midnight when Kenny found the Old West motel, twenty miles out of his way down an old desert highway. He spent the previous six hours driving through town after town, looking for a motel with a vacancy.
He checked in, not caring that the rundown motel’s empty, tumbleweed-strewn parking indicated he was probably the only customer. He felt exhausted and wanted only a clean bed and goodnight’s sleep.
The following morning, jangling spurs and heavy footsteps pounding on the walkway awakened him. Kenny buried his head in the pillow after a rattling doorknob and several hard knocks.
“Go away, I'm sleeping!”
A flyer slid through the crack between the door and floor. He dragged himself from beneath the covers and lumbered across the room. Whoever awakened him had gone by the time he opened the door.
He hollered down the empty walkway, "Thanks for waking me, jerk!"
After slamming the door, Kenny grabbed the flyer off the floor on his way back to bed. He wiped the sleep grit from his eyes and squinted at the rustic print.
As a kickoff to pioneer days, join us for a shootout and mock trial at the Hanging Tree outside of town. During the days of the old west, this celebrated tree’s limbs bowed beneath the weight of men who received frontier justice for their crimes, real or imaginary. Come and reenact a part of American History at sundown.
Kenny thought, Why not? The celebration sounded interesting, and his vacation passed too quickly anyway. He notified his office he had car trouble, and would be a day or two late.
Over a late breakfast, he mused that perhaps he could talk the actors into hanging his boss in absentia for being an asshole.
Late that afternoon, Kenny followed the flyer’s directions. He drove down a dusty road into the foothills. After parking at the base of a knoll blanketed in sun-browned prairie grass, he trudged to the top.
The huge oak tree cast an imposing silhouette against the waning sunlight. A small crowd of apparent Old West aficionados intently listened to a docent reciting the tree’s history.
The town’s version of Boot Hill sat on the gentle back slope behind the tree, the docent rattling off a reverent litany of the rustlers, robbers, and gunfighters buried beneath the broken and lichen covered tombstones. When Kenny stepped up to the group, he spotted a hangman’s rope with a bungee cord and harness, dangling from a limb.
“Aha! We have a late-arriving visitor, a dastardly deed worth hanging. Don’t you think, folks?”
Kenny responded to their good-natured applause with a bow and sheepish grin, eying the noose uneasily.
An exaggerated argument about cheating at a card game suddenly shifted the crowd’s attention. Two gunfighters in the crowd challenged each other to a showdown. They stepped from the crowd and began to pace their steps.
“Now, hold on a minute,” one of the gunfighters said. “My lumbago is acting up and it might affect my shooting. I’m going to have to select someone in the audience to stand in for me.
Amid the onlookers’ catcalls, he selected Kenny to act in his behalf. He donned the gun belt and oversized Stetson that slid down over his ears. He swaggered before the crowd, and the docent gave the audience a wry grin.
“You’re a pretty mean looking hombre,” he said. “What’s your name cowboy?”
Sliding his thumbs into his sagging gun belt, Kenny expanded his chest. “Los Angeles Slim.”
The other gunfighter then called out, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, Slim.”
He enunciated the cliché with perfect cowboy diction. Kenny, not to be outdone, responded in his best John Wayne voice, “Then, I guess there is nothing left for us to do but slap leather, pilgrim.”
The crowd stepped back, and Kenny’s face flushed when they rooted for the gunfighter.
The gunfighters squared off and drew their six-gun simultaneously. Two shots rang out. The hushed crowd waited for one to fall.
A wisp of bluish smoke rose from Kenny’s gun barrel. The other gunfighter slowly fell to the ground with an exaggerated, Oscar winning death. The crowd applauded while several men carted the “dead man” off. Another cowboy, wearing a dull, rusting badge stepped from the crowd.
“Los Angeles Slim, as sheriff of this here county I am placing you under arrest for the murder of Shorty Mc Guinn.”
Kenny played along, basking in the crowd’s enjoyment while being handcuffed.
“What are you going to do sheriff, hang me?”
“Yep, sometimes the right man gets hung and sometimes not. That was frontier justice, the only justice the hanging tree ever hungered for.”
Kenny’s nerves twitched when the sheriff slid the noose over his head. Apparently sensing his trepidation, the sheriff winked and fitted him with the bungee cord harness. Another cowboy led a horse through the crowd, and they hoisted him onto the saddle.
Someone hollered, “Hang him high, sheriff!”
Kenny glanced at the crowd and in the twilight, they appeared haggard, even pallid. A putrid stench sung his nostrils and he turned in the saddle.
“Sheriff, what is that that awful smell?”
A sinister grin crossed the Sheriff’s suddenly ashen and decaying face. He slapped the horse on the haunches, and it broke into a full gallop. Kenny yanked backward off the saddle, and gripped the horse’s belly with his legs waiting for the bungee cord to recoil.
The noose slack tightened however, and his neck snapped with a loud crack. Kenny’s legs twitched and the night turned chilly and silent, as nights on the prairie always did.
The crowd vanished behind Boot Hill’s darkened tombstones. As the night turned quiet, the old oak tree lifted Kenny’s corpse and cradled it in the crook of a limb. His decomposing corpse nourished the old tree for days, once more satisfying its hunger for frontier justice.
Hal Kempka is a former Marine, and Vietnam Veteran. His short stories have been published in 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Flashes in the Dark, Ascent Aspirations, Night to Dawn, Black Lantern, Black Petals, Microhorror, and Thrillers Killers and Chillers among numerous others. Anthologies include Post Mortem Press: Shadow Play, Pill Hill Press: Rotting Tales, and Blood bound Books: Seasons in the Abyss. He is a FlashXer flash fiction workshop member and lives in Southern California. His email address is email@example.com.
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