Western Short Story
The Neckstretcher
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He answered to the name of Grubb; no first name, just the last name. If he was needed for his specialty, a telegraph wire would go out to a dozen towns making the request public all the way. The wire would be talked about in every saloon, barbershop, freighter’s site, stagecoach station, ladies parlor, campfire or branding session. It would read something like, “A verdict in Bent River needs fixing.” Most often the wire message was initially pinned to a sheriff’s office or the telegrapher’s office, from where the word spun off with fact or conjecture. All the wire meant was the hangman was wanted to drop a man who had been convicted of a hanging crime, a hangman called The Neckstretcher.

When Grubb the hangman showed up he would announce himself to the sheriff as secretly as possible and arrange the earliest schedule possible for a Saturday morning execution. In some places the sheriff knew him and some places not. But people in general shied away from Grubb and his sour personality unless a card game was involved, or occasionally an old friend coming on the scene, though not too often on that count. And none of those knew him as the executioner for one specific reason: On Saturday morning, from wherever he spent Friday night, Grubb, The Neckstretcher, came out of the morning with a mask on his face.

All across the territory the mysterious, masked hangman was known as The Neckstretcher. He was, if truth be known, plain Alton Burris Grubb, an old Okie from the Oklahoma Territory without family or connection as far as anybody knew. He’d come into a town on a Friday, try to win at cards, be social with one of the ladies, hang a man on the gallows on Saturday morning, and leave. He’d disappear clean as a shadow at dawn. Nobody knew where he went other than to a new calling set up by a sheriff, a marshal or a town council … whenever that calling arose.

Grubb never missed an assignment. Sometimes there was no requirement for his services and he might not be seen, or heard of, for a few months. Folks in the territory never knew where The Neckstretcher went.

“Ain’t it somethin’, said a citizen of one of the river towns Grubbs serviced, “The Neckstretcher hides out just like a robber does, like he might feel guilty himself or be ashamed of his job. Can you imagine that? Goes with the territory, I guess. Easy come, easy go, or maybe not. Course, I wouldn’t like that job neither. How many guilty men ain’t dead yet, ain’t had their necks wrung proper, and how many hung and stretched weren’t guilty at all no matter what judge and jury said.”

So, on this night Grubb’d never heard of Lester McNally until he was in a late card game in the Rooster’s Saloon in middle of Shady Forks. The saloon was crowded on a Friday evening, a trail drive had delivered its herd a few days earlier, and odd cowpokes were hanging around with a few dollars trying to kick loose in their pockets. A few card sharks were in the mix, as well as the hopefuls that haunted every saloon. The saloon was noisy, people coming and going, the ladies dancing when asked, the piano on a constant roll, and the games now and then erupting with a “hurrah” from a trail rider who was a rare winner.

The sheriff of Shady Forks, Duban Pansetter, sat in a corner watching everything, including the table where Grubb sat. He was pretty damned sure he was the only one who knew Grubb was The Neckstretcher.

Pansetter, as usual, sat and watched as he did every evening unless he had a special calling to go elsewhere or guard a dangerous prisoner or be close to the jail when a hanging was imminent. No hanging was on the horizon for Shady Forks and Grubb had come in unmasked, as he did many times, “from wherever,” to see a special friend.

Most people said Pansetter as a sheriff had paid his dues times over, “’Cause he never did waste no time on the job, him lookin’ ‘n’ huntin’ no matter where he was, or where he went to get there,” as one Shady Forks citizen said. “Beside, ain’t he bin in the real stuff with bandits and coach robbers and renegades more’n we kin count? That counts most.”

Pansetter really liked his quiet times, reading people at their actions, seeing how his estimates of people turned out. He enjoyed how quickly Grubb would cash in when Paula in the green dress came out on the balcony upstairs. A good number of times he had seen that connection and said to himself, “It tickles me right proper, it does, thinking about Paula being on the side of the law for a change and The Neckstretcher being human enough after all.”

Grubb’s attention, of course, was split in two directions; he kept looking up to the balcony on the second floor to see if his special friend Paula had appeared in the green dress. He had purchased the dress for her in a romantic mood and it eventually was set up as a signal for him. He had known Paula for a dozen years and had almost proposed marriage to her, but he was afraid she’d refuse him. So he never asked. But he was anxious to see her each time he visited Shady Forks. That kept his mind twisted every few minutes from the poker game and what was going on at the table.

Whenever Grubb saw Paula in that green dress get-up, he’d cash in right away before anybody else beat him to the draw

As Pansetter sat musing about The Neckstretcher, a commotion started at the far end of the bar. It did not appear to be a fight, but rather a loud exchange of words, not unusual for any night in a watering hole like the Rooster’s Saloon. At the outset Pansetter did not detect danger in the tone of the voices.

But he did a bit of soul-searching when something in his mind suddenly blurted out a saying that his grandfather had said many years ago; “Giant oaks grow from pesky small acorns that crunch under your feet like they was there every day, but you know they ain’t so.” For years he had said those words again and again and now something else told him that they might fit into the Rooster’s Saloon in short order.

An itch started at the back of his neck.

“Hey, McNally,” a man at the bar had yelled out to a drinker at the far end of the bar, “who’d you say you come to see, ‘cause I ain’t seen her yet.” The speaker, standing away from the bar to command attention, had been around before. A few scars dotted his face like hot coals might have been thrown on them at one time, and might have left endless anger and frustration in their place. That imperfect face with its porcine nose was locked away in the sheriff’s mind, but the man’s name eluded him for the moment. He knew it would be sure to come along like a little doggie chasing his momma.

Pansetter thought quickly about the possible messages being delivered loudly, not so much concentrating on the words themselves, but on the real target of their implication. His eyes shifted around the room and settled on Grubb sitting at his game, his white Stetson tipped back on his head as he leaned over the table as though he expected an ace as to be the next card dealt. Preconceptions bounced around his head. As a sheriff, as an experienced man in a job that sometimes put him in the midst of hundreds of people, he never disregarded such intrusions in his normal thinking.

McNally, at the far end of the bar, was a husky cowpoke wearing a gray sombrero, a black vest over a pale blue shirt, two pistols on his belt, and could set his eyes to look as dark as owl’s eyes under his hat brim. A deep mark across his chin might have been a notch in a lively life’s journey. Just back from the completed trail drive, he was a noisy but up-front character, rarely in real trouble, but often so close he could smell it … or those around him could.

McNally slapped his hand down on the bar top, which sounded like a shot from his revolver, or a matter of calling attention. More than once he had been in the limelight in Shady Oaks, as well as the surrounding territory. He’d been in a couple of self-defense situations, as far as the law went, and had established an unblemished reputation for quick draw ability and a mean edge, odd for a man as big as a tree. The man could crowd anybody.

It appeared to Pansetter that McNally was being taunted, but it had not surprised him. Others had done it.

McNally said, loud enough for every patron in the saloon to hear, “That lady comes out in a green dress up there,” and he nodded overhead, and then pointed with an unsteady hand, “is the only one I got a call for.”

At his table, Grubb rose from his seat.

The sheriff saw him move, look up to the balcony and then at the far end of the bar.

In one hand Grubb held all his chips and in the other hand held his five cards of the deal. Grubb tossed the cards onto the table top, split the chips into both hands and turned to McNally halfway across the room and said, “If the lady’s wearin’ a green dress she ain’t nobody’s company but mine, and whoever thinks not on it best walk out front right now and get it squared right proper for the evening.”

“Hell,” McNally said, “I ain’t too upset about no extra company ‘cause it’s not botherin’ me any, but I ain’t runnin’ from no damn green dress. Don’t seem proper for a man to run from the color of a dress some lady’s awearin’ in a saloon like she’s extra special.”

Pansetter thought if he blinked his eyes he’d miss something that a judge would want to know later on, for “later on” leaped up in the air. The Neckstretcher, he surmised, had to be callous in his soul, born to do the work he had accepted, and McNally was a known provoker and quick trigger who loved the excitement and the daunting of a duel.

Some things prove inevitable.

It all happened in a flash.

A slice of color appeared on the balcony, a flash of green like a clustered vine, and every eye in the saloon shot up to the second level to catch the lady in a green dress. It was obvious that McNally’s pal had set the scene, and McNally himself had dropped the gauntlet, right there in the middle of the saloon. In a dramatic moment fit for a stage Paula Nygard swirled her long skirt in a wide arc and the sound of the fabric flowing free on the air descended to the depths of the saloon. She was front and center, above every customer in the saloon, and the only girl on the balcony. She twirled the dress again, the fabric sounding its touch.

“Hi ya, doll,” McNally said. “You ready for some good comp’ny up there?” He moved toward the foot of the stairs.

“Hold on there,” Grubb shouted. “Paula’s with me for the evening.” He stepped forward, a slim gent in a white, sun-bleached Stetson, a blue shirt under a black vest, and not a weapon on his belt. “It’s been arranged beforehand.”

“I ain’t seen no arrangin’,” McNally said, and turned to face Grubb, still coming toward him, each of his hands holding a bunch of poker chips.

“It was all arranged before you got here, mister.” He looked up at Paula and said, “Ain’t that so, Paula? Ain’t that all arranged?”

McNally said, in a daunting voice, “I heard all about you and her and I’m staking my claim for the evening, and right now. I see you ain’t carryin’ so you better get some iron in yore hands or I’m gonna cause you some trouble.”

“I’m not carrying any weapon,” Grubb said, “because I choose not to, so you better step aside and let me tend to business.” He kept advancing toward McNally.

“Better stay back,” shouted McNally or I’ll drop you right there.”

“Hey,” shouted a young fellow at a nearby table. “He ain’t got no gun, so leave him alone. That’s his special girl up there. I seen ‘em together before.”

“You stay the hell out of this or I’ll drop you right there.”

Pansetter tried to move quicker than he did. One of his spurs caught in a chair rung.

“You’re all blah and noise,” said the youngster and started to stand up.

Faster than most men in the saloon ever thought of being, McNally drew his weapon in a swish of his hand and shot the young man where he stood beside the table, his hands empty.

McNally turned to Grubb. “What the hell you gonna do about that, mister? Get yourself a gun.”

“I’m doing nothing now,” Grubb said, as he dropped his chips on the bar, and turned and walked toward the door.

“Where you goin’, mister?” McNally blurted out. “I ain’t done with you.” The smoking pistol was still in his hand.

Pansetter was up out of his chair. The youngster who was shot lay on the floor. Not a customer moved in the saloon. Paula, upstaged, dared not move on the balcony.

Grubb, in a slow move, steady, reached out and took a black sombrero off the head of a man at the closest table. In turn he threw his white hat onto the man’s table and put the black sombrero on his own head.

Then, in the slowest move of the entire evening, Grubb reached into his shirt pocket, withdrew a black mask and placed it across his eyes. It sat tight and black under the black brim.

In a soft voice, Grubb said, “I’ll be waiting for you, mister, one of these mornings.”

He was out the door before anybody in the saloon could move.