He may have escaped the rope, but justice would not be denied.
The floor dropped out from under Corbin Jeffries feet as the trap door swung free. Like the gaping mouth of hell, it opened fast and wide for Corbin Jeffries, and he obliged it without a moment’s hesitation.
He dropped like a fat sack of rocks. It was a short free fall that ended quite abruptly as he hit the end of the slackened rope. His boots continued their acute descent, hitting the ground with a loud thud and a cloud of dust.
It was a quick ending to a long string of theft and murder. Except for a slight sway of his lifeless corpse, Corbin Jeffries didn’t move. He just hung there, in his dirty, worn out socks.
The women who had come to watch the spectacle touched their fingers to their pursed lips as they turned their heads from the ghastly sight.
The men adjusted their hats and shifted their stance to protect their wives from the temptation of a second look. The crowd of curious onlookers, satisfied that justice had been served, silently went their separate ways.
The local undertaker wasted little time in cutting the hanged man down. He was proud to have the body of Corbin Jeffries in his possession. So proud he propped it up in an open coffin and put it on display in front of his place of business where it remained for the rest of the day.
A steady stream of curious townsfolk were eager to see the corpse up close. They needed to know for sure that he had finally been sent to hell with a rope around his neck. Some spat on it while others cursed it. Most wanted and others needed to satisfy their hatred for the meanest and baddest outlaw in all of New Mexico.
The early morning hanging was the talk of the town. While most folks were happy to be rid of the likes of Corbin Jeffries, there was one who thought only of revenge.
After the hanging, Sheriff Jack Burley headed back to his office. He had a feeling Corbin’s brother Mathew, would not sit idly by and let justice have its day. As sure as the sun sets in the West, revenge would soon be heading his way.
The sheriff had seen Mathew Jeffries mingling with the crowd of onlookers that morning. He expected trouble then, but to his surprise and his relief, it didn’t show itself. But the lack of a confrontation had put Sheriff Burley on edge. He knew it was coming. He just didn’t know where or when.
As he stepped into his office he caught the sight of Corbin’s partner, Silas Penny. He was behind the bars and sitting quietly on his cot. For some odd reason, the sight gave him some comfort.
“And just what’s the matter with you?” Taunted the sheriff. “You don’t seem to be your talkative self this morning. Cat got your tongue? I seen you watching through the bars. How do you like the way we serve up justice in this town? That’s right. We serve it up at the end of a rope and tomorrow’s your turn to step up to the table. I’ll make darn sure the undertaker props you up right alongside your com padre. And by God, I’ll stop by and spit on you myself.”
Silas Penny looked up and locked eyes with the sheriff. He quivered his upper lip as he let out a menacing snarl. The few teeth he had left in his mouth were dirty and rotten. A weeks growth of graying whiskers only added to the look of a caged animal. Silas had been wearing the same clothes for as long as he had been in custody. He was beginning to stink and the sheriff was anxious to get him out of his office.
“I hate to break it to you, but your antics don’t scare me,” remarked Sheriff Burley. “You’re nothing more than a worthless piece of rotting meat. The sooner I put you out of your misery, the sooner the maggots can have their way with you.”
Silas lurched toward the bars. “I’ll cut yer’ heart out and feed it to the dogs.”
“Is that a threat? You just don’t get it, do you? Your menacing days are over.
Tomorrow you’ll be swingin’ from the end of a rope and we’ll all give up a rousing cheer. Nobody around these parts wants to have you filling your lungs with another breath of their good air. But don’t feel too rejected Silas, I’m sure Lucifer himself will be glad to have you.”
Silas sat back down. “Well if you’re so all fired anxious to get rid of me, why didn’t you hang me today alongside Corbin?”
“If I had my way about it, I would have done just that. In fact, if I had my way about it, there wouldn’t even have been a trial. I would have hung you from the lowest branch of the nearest tree. But then… that wouldn’t have been very lawful of me now, would it.”
The sheriff sat down at his desk. “So why was Matthew Jeffries in town today?” He asked.
Silas looked up with a glare sharp enough to cut a man in two. The evil grin that accompanied it only added to the tension. He stared at the sheriff for a time before he spoke. In a low whisper, he replied. “To cut yer heart out, what else.” He laughed out loud and lay down on the cot.
Tomorrow won’t come soon enough, thought the sheriff. “So if he’s looking for revenge, why didn’t he try to do something before we hung his brother?”
Silas folded his arms back behind his head and propped it up some. “What do you mean we? You hung him. He’s only after you. He didn’t want to stop the hanging. Mathew hated his brother. He was glad to see him go. But… he was his brother after all. As far as he’s concerned, his death needs to be avenged. I only hope I’m around to see it. Why didn’t you arrest him? I could have used the company.”
“Guilt by association won’t hold up in court,” replied the sheriff. “He may have a reputation but he hasn’t committed any crime that I’m aware of.”
“At least not yet,” laughed Silas. “I’d be watching my back if I were you. I hope you sleep well tonight.”
This wasn’t the first time Sheriff Burley had heard talk like that. He didn’t let the idle threat bother him. “I’m obliged to bring you breakfast tomorrow, what do you want?”
“Don’t bother,” replied Silas. “I won’t be here to eat it.”
“That’s what they all say,” retorted the sheriff as he got up from his desk and walked back outside.
He rolled a quirley and lit it up, inhaled deeply and blew a cloud of thick smoke out toward the street. From where he stood he could see the undertakers shop. Corbin Jeffries corpse was still on display, but the spectacle was beginning to wear thin.
Most anybody who wanted to see the corpse had already done so. Plus the gathering flies gave testament to the fact that the heat of the day was surely taking it’s toll on the body. The Sheriff decided it was time to tell the undertaker to put a lid on the coffin and get it into the ground.
As he stepped out into the street, a lone figure of a man crouched low on the roof behind the false front of the nearby Dry Goods store. With rifle in hand he took careful aim in the direction of the sheriff.
A shot rang out.
The bullet hit the ground right in front of the Sheriff close enough to spray dirt onto his boots. He dove for the cover of a nearby water trough and rolled up against it just as two more shots rang out showering him with cool water from the trough. Whoever was doing the shooting was either a lousy shot or giving him something to think about.
Sheriff Burley kept his head down until he got up the nerve to sprint for better cover. Not another shot was fired and nobody, except for maybe the corpse of Corbin Jeffries had seen a thing. But then, he wasn’t about to talk.
The sheriff searched the area where the shots had come from but came up empty. Burley figured the shots had been a warning. For what, he wasn’t exactly sure.
Later that evening he paid a visit to the “Golden Canary”. The saloon wasn’t much more than a dimly lit room with a small stage at one end. It stood empty. “I guess the bird isn’t singing tonight,” he thought to himself.
The ‘Bird’ was a singer named Angelina. A real beauty with a voice as sweet as honey. She put on a show for the boys several nights a week. Tonight was not one of those nights. The sheriff stepped up to a small table where Mathew Jeffries sat alone fumbling with a deck of cards. He grabbed up a chair and invited himself to take a seat.
“Where were you this afternoon?” Demanded the sheriff.
“What business is that of yours?” Questioned Mathew.
“Someone took a a few shots at me this afternoon.”
“And?” Questioned Mathew once again.
“And I hear you’re keen on getting the man who hung your brother this morning. As we both know, that would be me.”
“I got no quarrel with you sheriff. My brother was worthless. Believe me, he got what he had coming to him. I’m telling you, there was no love lost between the two of us. If someone’s taking shot’s at you, it must be for some good reason. Like I said, I got no quarrel with you and I ain’t the one doin’ the shootin’.”
The sheriff got to his feet and held the broad shadow of his six-foot frame over Mathew Jeffries. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now. But if I find out different”… He didn’t finish the sentence as he turned and headed for the door.
Jeffries watched him leave and went back to his cards.
The sheriff decided to let it go for now. He called it a night and headed for home. Tomorrow would be another big day. He was sending Silas Penny to hell.
The following morning Sheriff Burley stepped into his office carrying a tray of hot food. He had done his duty by stopping off at the towns’ café. He was carrying a nice hot breakfast of steak, eggs, biscuits and gravy for Silas. As he walked up to the cell he was taken completely by surprise. Silas pulled a gun from behind his back and pointed it at the sheriff. “I told you I wouldn’t be here for breakfast, didn’t I?”
Before Sheriff Burley could answer, he felt the stinging pain of a pistol butt to the back of his head. Everything went black. Matthew Jeffries had been hiding behind the front door. He took the cell door keys from the sheriff as he lay on the floor.
“That was a waste of a good lookin’ steak,” remarked Silas, as he stared down at the sheriff and his breakfast sprawled out across the floor.
Mathew unlocked the cell door for Silas. As soon as Silas stepped out, he caught the back of Mathew’s head with the butt of his pistol. In one swift move he grabbed the gun out of his hand and shoved him into the cell as he went down onto the floor. He quickly locked the cell door.
“Sorry Mathew, but I know you too well and I can guess your plan. You cut me loose and follow me out into the desert. When we’re far enough out, you shoot me and haul me back into town draped over my saddle. I don’t expect you’ll be collecting any reward off me today.”
Not only was he hungry, Silas never could pass up a good steak and he wasn’t about to start now. He picked up the steak and one of the biscuits from off the floor and slipped out the back door. Just outside he found two waiting horses. He mounted one and headed north.
Silas had little willpower and that big juicy steak was calling his name. He took a man sized bite and started chewing. Unfortunately, he tried to swallow the big chunk of meat way too soon. It got stuck in his throat and he began to choke.
The piece of meat had cut off his air supply and the harder he tried to dislodge it, the more stubborn it became. He dismounted his horse and dropped to his knees frantically trying to remove the obstruction until his lungs felt as if they would burst.
A nearby stray dog grabbed the steak and ran off as Silas Penny slowly choked to death.
His lifeless body was soon discovered lying in the dirt with his hands clutched around his throat. He looked as if he had strangled himself.
The piece of meat stuck in his throat was never discovered.
To this day, as a warning to all who entertain the idea of escaping from the jail of Sheriff Ben Burley, the tale of Silas Penny and how the righteous hand of judgment forced him to choke himself to death is made known.
© Copyright 2023 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.
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