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Before She Hangs

by Timothy James Turnipseed 12 months ago in Short Story · updated 11 months ago
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Captive, Captor, and Cold

“Tomorrow you hang. That’s a promise. And I always keep my promises.”

Mist like dragon’s breath billowed from the man’s mouth with every pitiless word, wreathing about his magnificent cowboy hat. He was a big fellow in a vintage leather aviator jacket, its fluffy sheep fur lining exposed by the fashionably opened collar. He also wore denim jeans and strode confidently in arctic boots. A military backpack – a rucksack – was on his back. A rifle was slung on his shoulder, and he bore a large handgun in a holster strapped to his thigh. In one of his leather-gloved hands he kept the rifle steady on his shoulder. In the other he held a rope…

And the end of that rope was binding the wrists of the woman stumbling after him.

The captive gazed at the snowy forest around her, desperately trying to conjure a hero from behind the next tree, and the next. Stately evergreens wore white on emerald needles. Other trees were naked, and the iron wind that tortured her made their bony branches rake the low gray sky. Her hands were frozen into claws; no gloves for her. Indeed, her only winter wear was a pink knit cap and a high school letterman’s jacket that was way too big for her. As she and her captor crunched through the snow, she could feel neither her hands nor her feet. But her oats…

“You proud of yourself, Clive Waterson?” she sneered. “Torturing a woman to death in front of crowd. A crowd with kids. That’s the ‘hero’ you are, Deputy?”

“Save it, Mandy.”

“Or what, Clive? You’ll kill me? I’d much rather be shot or stabbed than hung! I’ve seen the agony in the faces of those poor people hanging up there, bugging their eyes, soiling their pants in front of everyone, kicking their lives away...”

“So you know what happens to Food Thieves, but you did it anyway.”

“I was hungry!”

“We’re all hungry. The righteous know how to sacrifice for the good of others.”

“Oh, don’t give me that ‘sacrifice’ crap!” Mandy scoffed, and she jerked back on the rope, bringing them both to a halt. “How much extra did they offer you to bring me in?”

“Not an ounce above a Standard Ration,” Clive insisted. “Yeah. Some of us don’t need to be bribed to do our Duty. Come on!”

And he yanked on the rope, staggering her forward.

“Look Clive, I know we haven’t had the best relationship lately, but you don’t have to freaking hang me!”

“Food Thieves hang. That is the Law!”

“The ‘law’ of a gangster? Hah!”

“If we’re going to rebuild civilization we need laws, Mandy. And people who keep their promises.”

The wind kicked up, and Clive stopped, surveying their surroundings.

“Blizzard,” he declared. “We’ll never make it back before it hits. I reckon we’d best make camp.”

“Hey!” Mandy panted. “Inspector Javert. You’re wearing thermal underwear, yeah?”

“Yes?”

“Well, you got any extra I can wear in that rucksack of yours? And gloves? I’m freezing to death out here. I mean, you need me alive to make an example of, right?”

“There’s an abandoned house over that hill,” Clive replied, pointing. “It’s in rough shape, but it’s better than any survival shelter you and I can scrape together before dark. Plus, it has an old potbelly woodstove.”

“Can’t we build a quinzhee instead? “

“No, I need a house so I can chain you away from me. Otherwise, you might get all murder-y as soon as I fall asleep.”

“I could never kill you, Clive,” Mandy sniffed, fighting back tears. “And it breaks my heart that you could kill me.”

“It’s not about you, woman. Come on!”

With that, Clive led his captive over the hill to… a small, tumbled down pile of debris beside a free-standing brick chimney.

“They took the foundation stones and all the useable timber,” he moaned. “They even took the stove!”

“They left the barn,” Mandy noted, nodding at a hulking, two-story edifice squatting at about a 100 yard’s distance across an open snowfield. The winter forest formed a wall of gray dotted with green behind the massive structure.

Age and the elements had stripped all paint from the barn, leaving brown-gray, weather-beaten boards. They could hear the old wooden timbers groaning in the wind, even from this distance.

“Kinda sus,” Clive noted, glancing warily about. “Why tear the house apart but not the barn?”

“They’re living in there?” Mandy suggested. “But if that’s home, you’d think they’d fix that gaping hole in the roof.”

“If there’s folks in that barn they’d best be friendly, cause that blizzard’s a-comin’ and iffin’ we don’t want to be popsicles by morning, we are straight out of options!”

“We could always go back to the woods and try my quinzhee idea.”

“Stop it.”

Mandy felt a little better once they entered the dimness of the barn. It was still cold, but at least the creaking walls blocked most of the wind. The interior was classic; a central hallway with stalls for animals to either side. There was a wooden ladder nailed to the wall leading up to a loft, which meant there was a protective ceiling between the hole in the roof and ground level. In the meantime, Clive was squatting, one hand on the ground.

“No manure,” he noted, standing while dusting his hands. “Or tracks. Not a scrap of hay or grain. No bridles, collars, or any equipment to handle livestock. I reckon there ain’t been animals in here for years.”

Mandy noted the clawed hands she could no longer feel.

“Frostbite,” she sighed. “Do you really want to see my fingers turn black and fall off?”

At that, Clive took a pair of handcuffs from his belt next to his knife, and cuffed his captive’s right ankle to one of the wooden gates in a nearby stall. Then he unraveled the rope from Mandy’s wrists, and she cried out in blessed relief.

“I’m going back to that chimney for bricks,” he explained. “We’ll need them to make a fire pit; I reckon it would be most inconvenient if the barn burns down while we’re in it. As for firewood, we’ll tear apart a stall or two.”

“You know Clive, I can help if you take these handcuffs off my leg.”

“Nice try Mandy. But now that your hands are free, put them under the clothes on your belly. We’ll see to your feet once the fire gets going.”

Clive dumped out his rucksack, pouring supplies on the barn floor before leaving the building. In the meantime, Mandy put her dead, icy hands under her clothes against the warmth of her abdomen and held them there until they began to hurt. A lot. Ironically, she was glad for the pain, because it proved that her fingers weren’t gone. Yet.

By the time her captor returned with a rucksack full of bricks, Mandy’s hands had thawed to the point where she could help him with the fire. To facilitate this, Clive took the handcuffs off her ankle. She considered running away, but realized the Deputy would just track her down again. She imagined bashing a brick against her captor’s head as soon as his back was turned, but found she just didn’t have the heart. Thankfully, Mandy knew for a fact that Clive Waterson was a deep sleeper…

With effort, the Deputy hacked a shallow hole in the frozen ground with his e-tool. Then he and his prisoner arranged a wall of bricks around this hole. After that, they destroyed two stalls and built a fire in the pit. Clive had a lighter; once cheap, now precious. Plus, he’d brought cotton balls rolled in petroleum jelly as waterproof tinder.

By nightfall, they were warmed by the flames as a howling blizzard raged beyond the clattering walls. A tiny bit of snow drifted down on them, blowing in from the massive hole in the barn roof to sift through the loft planks above. Meanwhile, Clive brought out a clear plastic storage dish, lifted the lid, and raised his metal spork.

“What’s that?” Mandy demanded.

“A piece of chocolate cake.”

“What the… how did you get cake? Who even makes cake these days?!”

“Boss’s Mom baked it. Gave me a piece for this job. I get another piece after I bring you in.”

“You said you only got a Standard Ration!”

“The caloric content of two pieces of chocolate cake is well within the parameters of a Standard Ration babe,” Clive explained.

"You would see me hang for a piece of cake?!"

"Two pieces of cake! And I bring criminals to justice because they break the Law. The cake is just the icing. On the cake."

“I want some!”

“You die tomorrow. I’m not wasting precious…”

“I’m hungry!” wailed Mandy. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday, idiot!”

“Fine!” Clive spat, and tossed her a little plastic bottle of clear gel. “Sanitize your hands first.”

The captive soon grabbed the offered cake in her hands and began stuffing the entire thing -- the sweet, moist, chocolatey thing -- into her famished maw; her captor never got a bite. But he did shake his head sadly, asking, “Why’d you do it Mandy? We all need to trust each other to survive. So why steal food?”

“I’d rather steal food than be some drug dealer’s minion,” she replied, licking her fingers clean.

“He doesn’t deal drugs anymore.”

“Only because he can’t get them. But you and your fellow Dogs make sure the drug lord gets all the food he wants, don’t you?”

“He’s keeping us alive!”

“He’s a mass murdering thug!”

The Deputy rose indignantly to his feet, but his retort was drowned in a roar and splintering crash. Mandy threw up her arms in defense, blinded by an avalanche of wood and snow. By the time she recovered, she noticed that their roof – the loft floor – had partially collapsed. Clive was on his back, his legs buried by debris. Somehow, the fire still burned.

“Help!” Clive cried, his voice small in the swirl of wind and snow. “One of the rafters… on my leg… it… it’s pinned. I… I think my leg’s broken!”

Mandy gasped. Then she closed her mouth and felt her face harden with grim resolve. Despising his piteous, pleading sobs, she stripped her erstwhile captor of his weapons and gear.

“Goodbye Clive,” she declared, the rucksack heavy on her back. Then she pushed the barn door open and rushed out into the night blizzard, trudging through the now shin-deep snow.

Her “escape” lasted all of 15 minutes. It became increasingly clear that she would die without shelter, and the only shelter available contained a trapped man doomed to die; by thirst, cold, cannibals, animal attack, or even burned in a fire. A wave of guilt surged up within Mandy, compelling her to return to the barn and free the Deputy from the fallen timbers.

Fortunately, Clive’s leg was not broken after all. Together, they found another, more sheltered space in the barn. Then they put out their first fire, moved the bricks to the new spot, and built another. And then somehow, Clive’s arm was under Mandy’s shirt, all the way to her chest.

“What do you say, baby?” the man asked. “One more time, for old time’s sake?”

Captor and Captive lay by the new fire pit, kissing until they began to make violent love. Not even the roaring snowstorm could mask their passionate cries.

*

Mandy slept through the night feeling warm, protected, and loved in Clive’s muscular embrace. But when she awoke to the cold morning light, she discovered that the man she’d slept with no longer lay beside her.

“Sweetie?” she purred, but when she tried to reach out for him, she found both hands tied behind her back! That’s also when she felt the noose about her neck…

“I promised you’d hang today. And I always keep my promises.”

“Clive, no! Please!”

“Food Thieves hang. That is the Law! If we’re going to rebuild civilization we need laws, Mandy. And people who keep their promises.”

“Clive! You don’t have to do this baby! We can…URK!”

Mandy gagged as she was lifted from the barn floor by the neck. She figured Clive had looped a rope over one of the barn’s ancient rafters and was hauling on this rough pulley. She choked, struggling to free her hands, kicking madly, raging against the agonizing vice around her neck…”

She slumped to the floor. Someone behind her loosed the rope. Mandy drew in a loud, ragged breath, and then vomited violently to the side.

“I promised you’d hang. I neglected to specify for how long. Mrs. Mandy Waterson, you are free to go.”

Mandy gulped several more mouthfuls of cold air before she could croak, “I still want a divorce.”

“I reckon you do. But I get my high school letterman jacket back. You can have this bomber jacket. And the two days’ rations in my pack.”

Short Story

About the author

Timothy James Turnipseed

Timothy was raised on a farm in rural Mississippi. His experiences have since taken him all around the world. He now teaches at local university, where he urges his Students to Run the Race, Keep the faith, and Endure to the End

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