The Lawman

Disclaimer: The following short story contains racially charged dialogue and disturbing subject matter as it reflects the characters and the period in which they exist. In no way does it express the views or opinions of the author.

“The hangman’s gettin’ his today.” A puff of cigarette smoke floated toward the open window. “Yessir. The hangman’s gettin’ his.”

  “Sit down, Joe. Enough witnesses out there already, ain’t there?”

  “What’s eatin’ you, Pal? Since when did you stop likin’ a good hangin’?” Pal looked back down at the revolver he’d been polishing for nearly an hour. It had been three long weeks since he’d been able to clean it. He couldn’t stand a dirty gun. Joe sat down at the other end of the table, exhaling a gray cloud. “There ain’t nothin’ you coulda done. Mitchell dug his own grave. What the hell were you supposed to do? Let him run off with them niggers?” Pal stopped wiping for a moment of thought, then resumed.

  “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” he said.

  “It ain’t about what a nigger do. It about what a nigger be. A nigger be a nigger. You can’t trust a one of ‘em. Sure as shit, as soon as Mitchell’d got them up north, those damn spooks woulda put a bullet twixed his eyes and made off with his horse an’ his billfold. I’m tellin’ ya. Sure as shit.”

  “Why would they do that to someone just helped ‘em?” Pal asked.

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.

 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “Sure it do,” said Joe, relaxing. He took out his pocket knife and began scraping the dirt from under his fingernails.

 “Didn’t look no different up in Kentucky.”

 “You just wasn’t payin’ no attention.”

 “Oh… I was payin’ attention.”

 “It’s in they skin, Pal. Come on. I know you ain’t missin’ that.”

 “No, I ain’t missin’ that.”

 “You can learn a nigger a lotta things. How to plow, how to plant, how to harvest, how to build. But you can’t change ‘em. You can’t wash out the nigger. You can’t learn out the nigger. They ain’t never gonna be no more than a bunch o’ damned monkeys. Any chance they’d get, them spooks’d be turnin’ this here country into Afr’ca, chuckin’ spears an’ bangin’ drums. Worst part is, it’d be us white folks chained up like we the slaves. Niggers would be goin’ ‘round murderin’ and rapin’ all our white women an’ chil’en. Lawmen like you an’ me, you know we’d be at the top o’ they kill list. That’s why we gotta keep ‘em under control, ‘specially them bad ones. Ain’t no tellin’ what a bad nigger gonna do.”

 “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” Pal repeated.

 “Don’t mean they wouldn’t if’n you let ‘em.”

 “Don’t mean they would, neither.”

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.
 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “The hell’s got into you, Pal?” Joe asked angrily. “You actin’ like there’s somethin’ wrong with killin’ a bad nigger.”

 “I ain’t sayin’ all that.”

 “What you sayin’, then?” Joe demanded, putting his knife away to face Pal who looked down at the gun in his hand.

 “What’s the difference ‘tween a good nigger and a bad nigger?” Pal asked, looking up at Joe.

 “What d’you mean ‘good nigger’? Ain’t no such thing as a good nigger, Pal.”

 “Just s’posin’ there were, Joe.”

 “But there ain’t-”

 “Just, s’pose.”

 “Well,” Joe shrugged after a moment, “a good nigger—s’posin’ there be such a thing—a good nigger know his place, an’ a bad nigger don’t know a nigger’s place.”

 “Okay,” Pal nodded. “What’s the difference ‘tween a good white man and a bad white man?”

 “I ain’t gotta explain a good white man. A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither. Look at what Mitchell done, helpin’ them coons. He got it all mixed up in his head one way or ‘nother.”

 “So, a bad white man is the same as a bad nigger, is what you’re sayin’?”

 “Now, Pal, ain’t no white man the same as a nigger, good nor bad.”

 “Would you shoot a nigger if’n you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “Sure as shit, I’d shoot that nigger dead.” Joe straightened up proudly.

 “Would you shoot a white man if you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “That ain’t the same thing at all, Pal, an’ you know it.”

 “Why ain’t it?”

 “’Cause, it’s twice the bad if a nigger’s rapin’ a white girl.”

 “To you or to the white girl?”

 “If they ain’t no difference to the white girl, then she mixed up too!”

 “It’s the same crime ain’t it, rapin’ someone?”

 “Yeah, but it ain’t the same if a goddamn nigger do it.”

 “What makes it different?”

 “’Cause they niggers, Pal! That’s why they gotta be kept under control. Why you questionin’ ever’thin’?”

 “You mean make ‘em slaves?”

 “If’n that’s what it takes, an’ we both know that’s what it takes.”

 “Supposin’ you made a white man a slave, put him in chains, took his woman and children away. Supposin’ that. What do you reckon that white man’d do?”

 “That ain’t the same thing.”

 “It ain’t?”

 “You talkin’ ‘bout a white man. We dealin’ with spear-chuckin’ chimps.”

 “What would you do if it was you, Joe? What if you was just some ole whitey slave under the nigger’s thumb? Sweatin’ away every day in their nigger fields, getting’ beat every day with them nigger whips, always hungry, never seein’ your wife and girls again but knowin’, fearin’ that every day, some nigger’s stuffin’ ‘em good? You’d do everything you could to get away, wouldn’t you?”

 “Course I would.”

 “You’d fight back? You’d break out and run?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d make them niggers pay, wouldn’t you?”

 “You’re goddamn right.”

 “I suppose you’d steal yourself a horse too if’n you could find one, to get you far as you can, quick as you can, right?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d need food, so you’d steal some of that, too, wouldn’t you? An’ a gun? If one o’ them were to see you, try to stop you, you’d shoot ‘im wouldn’t you?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “So you’d be runnin’, stealin’, and murderin’…” Pal looked down at the handkerchief in his hands, his thoughts pulling him back and forth. “Sounds a lot like the same shit bad niggers be doin’. There ain’t no difference.”

“… A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither….”

 “Them niggers is property, Pal! White folks ain’t property o’ no man!”

 “But what was they first, Joe? Was they property first, or was they just niggers first?”

 “You talkin’ nonsense, Pal.”

 “It ain’t no nonsense that anyone would be doin’ the same thing if’n they was treated the same way. You said so yourself.”

 “So, what?”

 “So, there ain’t no difference ‘tween a bad nigger an’ a bad white man. We jus’ say there is ‘cause we’re white an’ ‘cause we’re the ones runnin’ shit. Switch things ‘round an’ niggers would be sayin’ the same ‘bout white folks. They’d be callin’ us property and bad ole whiteys. There jus’ ain’t no goddamn difference, Joe.” Joe looked a long time at Pal who’d gone back to wiping down his revolver, and he wasn’t sure if he should start to hate him or fear him.

 In Joe’s mind, the only thing more dangerous than a nigger, was a nigger lover. They were like spies. Turncoats. You couldn’t trust them, but you couldn’t identify one just by looking at him. They were tricky. They could circumvent law, spawn anarchy and rebellion. At the same rate, hadn’t it been Pal who’d taken the lead while they were hunting down that last group of runaways? Hadn’t it been Pal himself who’d cuffed Thomas Mitchell, his longtime partner? He’d even testified against Mitchell to the magistrate. If it wasn’t for Pal, Mitchell might be rounding up some more runaways instead of standing outside in line at the gallows. Perhaps, it didn’t matter much what Pal thought in his head because Pal didn’t let it get in the way of the job he’d sworn to do. They had to maintain the balance of law and order and keep the peace. Joe had always respected Pal, but in that moment, he realized he neither hated nor feared Pal. Joe wanted to be Pal in some different way he had yet to define for himself.

 “What would you do, Pal?” Joe asked, lighting a fresh cigarette. Pal looked over at him.

 “What would I do, what?”

 “What would you do if’n you was some spook’s slave, jus’ some ole whitey all chained up? What would you do?” Pal sat for a long time, staring at the table between them, his eyes heavy, the dark circles beneath them like the shadows of twin crescent moons. Joe was leaning forward slightly, squinting at him.

 “I can’t rightly say,” said Pal, holstering his pistol. He stood up slowly and approached the window, folding the cloth between his hands.

 “The hell you mean, you can’t rightly say? Why not?” Joe scoffed, second-guessing his newfound desire to be like Pal. “I wanna know what you’d do.”

 Running his thumb along the stitching of the handkerchief, Pal looked out towards the distant gallows. The sun was high, and he could see the one shade of light skin leading the line of dark. Mitchell was first up to climb the platform, and it occurred to Pal how quickly time passed in life. They’d been partners for almost nine years, and there was no question in Pal’s mind that if it wasn’t for Tom, he’d be a dead man. Pal felt pretty certain that he’d done the same for Tom, but even if he had, did it count for anything, now? If anyone had ever tried to tell him it would be his testimony that tightened the rope around his partner’s neck, he’d have knocked their teeth in. Tom didn’t look angry about it at his trial, though, almost as if he approved of Pal doing what was right, even if Pal didn’t like it. Yet, they’d both done what they believed to be right, hadn’t they? The difference was that one had acted according to his conscience and the other according to the law, but how do you string up a man for following his conscience? And if a man’s conscience runs counter to the law, does that make the man wrong or the law wrong?

 Pal couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and it had finally exhausted him. What would he do if the world was opposite? How the hell could he tell that if he couldn’t tell what he’d do in the world as it was? Pal did know, however, what Mitchell would do, and he hung his head as the black bag was lowered over Tom’s face.

 “I guess I’d be a good ole whitey.”


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BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

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