Fire is supposed to burn. Burn grass, burn wood, burn flesh and blood. Fire is a thing of wonder, and of fear. Man harnessed it, used it to illuminate the fearful dark. It shatters rock, boils water, destroys forests. But, there she stood, the building falling around her, wooden beams crashing from the high ceiling and showering glowing embers in arcs dozens of feet high. She carried the last of the children in her arms: a five year old who had hidden under his desk instead of running like he had been told.
The firemen thrust the lever up and down wildly, pressurizing the pump, which fed the water to the hose. The horses whinnied, anxious around the cracking pillars of fire. The small pump wagon creaked as the pressure built inside and the hose sprayed a pitifully small stream of water at the roaring fire. Water which rapidly boiled to steam and barely impacted the roaring flames.
She stepped through an arch of fire where the front of the schoolhouse had collapsed. Random flames lapped at her body, but she hardly seemed to notice. In her arms she clutched two things, the first was the crying child, and between him and her bosom was the book of lessons and psalms she had carried to school every day for the last four years. The old woman was the first to scream. Not the screams of desperation that the parents had been crying as they saw the school burn. This was a scream from the darkest fear. It cut through the roar of the flames like a siren.
The crowd was gathered at the base of the scaffold. Upon it a woman had been placed, her knees trembled and tears streamed down her cheeks. A man in priests garb stood next to her, a bible in his hands. A few feet away another man stood, and in his hand was the ultimate peacemaker, a Colt .45 revolver peacemaker, and it was pointed first at the minister, then at the crowds. But, it was held without confidence.
“Sheriff, there are two laws in this land, the law of man, and the law of God, which one do you stand by?” the priest said, raising the Bible to the roar of the crowd.
“I do believe I stand by both.”
“I say we all witnessed the witch practice magic, the entire town, even you.”
“Even if she did, there ain’t no law against it.”
“Except God’s Law!”
The mob erupted in cheers and shouts. There were at least 40 rowdy farmers, merchants, and workers gathered here, although probably every adult in the small community was somewhere in the vicinity at the moment. It wasn’t a large town and a commotion like a lynching attracted, well, everyone.
“And murder is against the Lord’s law, reverend, and you’re about to murder a woman, who last I reconded, saved a many O’ the townsfolk’s children in the fire.”
“She mighta started it,” shouted a voice in the mob.
“We all know it was started by the lightning strike, Mary Lou saw it herself…”
“We saw her..” the minister said, pointing at the crying woman. Her large skirts were in a crinkled bunch, she had fallen into the noose, having lost the strength to stand, and her dress had billowed out making it look like she was falling into a large cloth pillow. Her curly brown hair hung forward, concealing her tears, and the noose around her neck.
The minister was in his element. He hadn’t believed in witches three days ago, but now he had no choice. Witch or demon, what he saw emerge from the flames was evil. The mob had seen it too, there were no skeptics. The sheriff couldn’t convince them of her innocence.
“Sheriff, we are here to hang a witch. You know I am not an ignorant man, we are all rational people, but we saw her emerge from the flame, unscathed by Satan’s fire, and her skin was alive with the demonic markings, evil words in languages no man can read, and images that still haunt the nightmares of our townsfolk! There can be only one end to this, we hang the witch!”
The crowed was beyond hostile now. It was ten in the morning, but the sheriff swore he saw torches and pitchforks. There were none, but there were shotguns, long guns, and pistols, currently all holstered, except his peacemaker, which so far was failing to live up to its name.
“Damn it reverend, don’t do this. Killing aint a line you can go back across. I know. Don’t matter if they are the devils son, killing ain’t an easy thing. You don’t wanta do this. I admit, I can’t stop ya. I don’t got nearly enough bullets. But, if the town does this, then I quit, reverend, and you should, too. In the war I killed to many a good man, no idea who they were, shot um dead just the same only because they was in fronta me. After I killed em too, part of the job, bad men, all of them. I don’t sleep so well, and neither will you.”
“We don’t sleep now, damn woman cursed us!” shouted a voice in the crowd.
“We all seen her! Naked in the flames, black with the devils markings, not being burnt! Now, it all comes in our dreams, she’s a witch, and God is telling us the only way we can get our peace back is to rid ourselves of her!” It was Jeb Smith shouting, and most of the crowd was nodding along in agreement, “Now Sheriff, either step aside, or were going to have to make you step aside.”
He stood for a moment. Look at the woman, at her tears.
“Ms. Caroline, is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.
“Let me read the psalms from my book, I know I am not a witch. If I read the psalms I have written there, won’t that prove it?” She asked through gasping breaths.
“Even the devil can quote scripture.”
She turned on the priest, “and I know how to swim, and I float. So, you want to use the old witches tests on me? What, are you ignorant peasants, is this 1600’s France? I taught all your children, I sang in your church! ” She saw the Wilson’s, the family whose son she had gone back to save, and saw the anger in their eyes. Even they wouldn’t help her.
The sheriff picked up the book and placed it in her hands. They had been tied in front of her, but she was able to flip the book’s thick pages to the place where she had written out the psalms.
“Though I walk through the valley of death thou art with me…”
The Sheriff threw down his badge. He holstered his weapon and stepped off the stage. Turning his back on the crowd he mounted his horse and road toward his home. He would never look back again. A few minutes later he heard the crowd go silent, then he heard the loud crash as the trap door swung open dropping Ms. Caroline three feet, and snapping her neck. No, he would never look back.
Ms. Caroline lay in a crumpled heap under the scaffolding. Mud from the three days of storms coated her dress. The mob shouted at the minister for his incompetence at noose making. They hauled her out from under the scaffolding, dragged her back up the stairs, and closed the trap again. It was then they noticed the rope at her neck had frayed and snapped.
“Minister, you sure this rope is new?” Asked Jebodiah, the trapper, but he wasn’t really looking for an answer, his fingers felt the coarse weave and knew it was new. He re-tired the noose, then tightened it around the woman’s throat.
“If you ain’t do it right, it ain’t humane. Gotta break the neck, or they swing and choke. Ain’t pretty, even for a witch,” Jebodiah said, tightening the rope and making sure there was enough slack for her to fall and break her neck cleanly.
The crowd watched, and their expectant murmur was matched only by the teachers sobbing. The trap clanked open again and she fell. The mud splattered and the rope, broken at the place it met the scaffolding, thudded to the earth next to her. She had landed in the hole she made the first time she fell. This time she tumbled to the side, and the book, still clutched in her fingers, splashed into the mud.
The crowd was angry now. It took the carpenter ten minutes to re-secure the rope to the scaffold. The crowd was silent as they tightened the noose around her neck. The trap opened with a loud thud, the sound echoed off the far mountains and nothing but the birds dared make a sound. There was a squishy thump as Ms. Caroline landed in the mud, followed by a deafening crash as the top beam bounced off the stage. The rope lay in a loose coil, the beam it had been attached to came to rest on the platform where moments before Ms. Caroline had been standing. The crowd gasp.
Mr. Pendleton strode forward with his shotgun. “Damn it if this witch ain’t going to die today!” he shouted.
“Stop!” The shout was loud. It, too, echoed off the far mountains. The minister stepped forward, “Stop. We thought we were carrying out God’s will. He has obviously shown we were fools, and prevented us from doing a grave error.”
“She’s a witch.” Shouted a woman at the back.
“What majic could she perform, hands bound, neck choked up in a noose? Did not God rescue Sheldrake, Meshach, and Abednego from the forges at Babble? Did any of us see their faces? No, but we know that God delivered them from the fire. First, he delivered Mr. Caroline from the fire, who had selflessly gone into a burning building to save a childen, and now he has saved her from the noose, not once, but three times! And so, too, he has delivered us from our folly!” He removed the rope from Ms. Caroline’s neck, and saw that it had left no mark. The book dropped from her hands as tears flowed down her cheeks, her breathing came in gasps, and she shook with shock. But, she breathed. She clutched the book to her chest and cried.
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