I was twenty-five when I returned to Old Glen, my hometown which laid in the heart of Blue Crow County. I left when I was nineteen to attend college, the college my father attended and the one he worked so hard to get me into. I graduated with flying colors and was eager to return home, but my years in college opened my eyes to the deformity of society's racism and bigotry. When I returned home, I realized that my town, which was a routine stop for Confederate soldiers during the war, was everything that I learned to despise. After a couple of short months, I realized I had no choice but to live among the socially tenuous life of the town with disregard to it's unjust inhabitants.
It wasn't like how I remembered. Maybe I was so used to it when I was younger that I didn't notice how wrong everything was. I guess it was the inherent life I had live in the south, which still hadn't recovered from the humiliation of defeat. The disparity between the whites and the others of color was so great, it was tense at moments. Lynches occurred every so often without us knowing who was demonstrating them, as if anyone really cared but me and the people I had convinced, and the prejudice was so strong, I could not help but feel that Old Glen was a town of deep stigma, and that it would never change. I knew I would have to step in someday or at sometime to try and make things right. But I soon learned that one man doesn't have the power to change a long history of violence and unfaltering racism.
It was early morning on a long, dreary summer Sunday when we heard the news: four murdered down by Old Glen Creek. Mitch and I were on our way into town when Mr. Anderson came galloping toward us on his mare. He eased his horse to a slow trot to meet our pace, and with that docile demeanor he had always been known for, he smiled at us while tipping his head a bit.
Mr. Anderson was a devote church attendee who never missed a single event that took place there. My mother told me when he was a young teenager, he was oblivious to Christ. He was a bully that rebelled against conformity and joined in sacrilegious deeds: drinking, boot-legging, pre-marital sex. But one day he quit all of it. He started attending church frequently, asked exorbitant amounts of questions concerning Christ and the Book, and even volunteered for numerous charities. No one knew the cause of his abrupt change in life. Some say he had an epiphany, others say he was scared white by something he dabbled in too often, and that it opened his eyes.
"You boys hear the commotion?" he asked, saying so in a voice that made it obtrusive that he hoped that we hadn't so he would be able to tell us himself.
"No, not a bit of it," Mitch replied. "Why, what is going on?"
"Let me just say that Lewis Friedman is going through a spell of tumults this summer," answered Anderson. "His wife and three children were found murdered down by Old Glen Creek, where that woman's cabin, who was suspected of practicing voodoo those five years back, used to be."
Mitch and I exchanged glances of surprise.
"Have they found the person who did it?" I asked.
"They are not sure whether the fellow who dealt this transgression is long gone or if he is under their very noses."
"So they are suspecting Mr. Friedman?"
"No," Anderson said, closing his eyes and shaking his head in relief. "I would not expect such a staunch churchgoer to commit a heinous act. My inference is that it was one of those damn savages; their camp is only a mile away from the area of the murders."
I was terribly disturbed by Mr. Anderson's contention. I have spent many days idling with those so called savages. Tomas, Ed, and Michael are misconstrued for the cannibals up north, the ones we hear about from the fur traders that pass through town a couple of times every year.
"I firmly doubt that," I rebuked abrasively. "They wouldn't do that. I know them."
"Well, I am sorry to hear that, boy," Anderson said, still calm. "I am sorry to hear that and also sorry that you are foolish enough to assimilate with those demons. Your father paid good money and half of his life to make sure you were well educated, and you repay him by lingering around those sun-dried cannibals, and in effect, spoiling his name. I deplore you. "
"It is called being objective to everyone, despite their race and the ignorant stereotypes that are unjustly connected to them."
I was amazed how Mr. Anderson could remain unmoved by things that would normally rile a person with the same beliefs as his.
"It is called being foolish," he said. "And I will not tolerate this defiance to ordinary decorum any longer. I will see you when the sun shines brighter, boys. Good day."
He galloped off, leaving me with a sense of defeat, but also with a feeling of rejuvenation. I had taken the opportune moment to defend my supposition vehemently about Tomas and his brothers, and for that I could walk with my head a little higher. It would be only a while before everyone in town started admonishing me.
I remembered the previous summer when I met Tomas in town. He was being harassed by local drunks and I had to step in and break it apart. He said shortly after, "friendships are one of the many essentials that shan't and won't be corrupted." He then led me to his encampment and introduced me to his brothers Ed and Michael, who were both as amiable as he was.
They taught me many things including old stories of how their tribe, which they called the Anatocho, had to struggle to find their own settlements and all the wars they fought with their rival tribes. They also taught me how to tell time by just looking at my shadow, how to catch twenty fish in less than an hour, how to sleep comfortably, but also attentively in case of any approaching danger, and other survival tips and Anatocho secrets that made me understand how they could live in the wilderness with ease.
"Forget about him, Danny," Mitch told me.
"I already have," I chuckled.
On our way into town we discussed the murders.
"So who you "spose killed them?" Mitch asked me, picking away at the cat tails he plucked from along side the road.
"I haven't the slightest idea," I said. "I wonder if Mr. Friedman even has an alibi, because I don't think him being a churchgoer is enough to convince me he is innocent."
I knew that the fact that Mr. Friedman was a religious man would be auspicious to his standing, especially in a town such as Old Glen, where a majority of the people attends church.
"Hell, every time I pass that old bastard's way, he has nothing pleasant to say to me when I wave or say hello to him," Mitch said. "He ain't nothin' but a belligerent kook, if you ask me."
"Like I said, just because he is a churchgoer doesn't make him a favorable person," I replied. "Mr. Anderson sure believes he's innocent."
"Eh," Mitch grunted.
It was true, Mr. Friedman wasn't the kindest man in Old Glen. He was actually, I can assume, one of the most despised, due to his offensive nature. The only person he was ever kind to was Mr. Anderson and Reverend Albert Meyers. I think the stress from raising and trying to keep a roof over his family's heads played an integral part to his lack of friendliness. Stress can be insidious to a man's sanity.
"I remember over hearing someone talking about him one day while I was down at the store about a week ago," Mitch said. "Mr. Friedman apparently has been talkin' to and seein' Reverend Meyers frequently. What about, I don"t know. And you know how Reverend Meyers is. He"s too unassuming and full-hearted to turn away someone seeking his help."
"I too have heard that Mr. Friedman has been in some type of quandary lately," I replied. "Mother tells me that Mr. Friedman has been terribly irritable towards his family. She says she thinks he has lost his faith, even though he still attends church. His landlord has been seen walking through town on his way to Mr. Friedman's place every other day for the past week."
"Financial problems would me my best guess," Mitch said. "Still, I would feel no sympathy for him if it were."
"I agree," I said. "Nothing could make me lash out at someone for a simple platitude. There's something eating him and I don't think faith was enough to mitigate his problem."
Mitch smiled at me, revealing his brittle teeth that suffered the impurities of tobacco chew and whiskey and finally all gave out when he was only twenty-six years old.
"So you saying you believe it was him?" Mitch asked.
"I don't believe it," I answered. "I am certain he did it. Just as I am certain I am alive."
We arrived in town and saw a mass of people gathered around the gallows and the Old Glen Court House. They were all shouting and raising their fists angrily in the air. I paid no attention to what they were shouting until I stopped someone and asked what was going on.
"Three Indians are gonna be hanged today for murderin' Lewis Friedman's family," the person said and re-entered the enraged bustle of people.
It was then when I realized the subversive comments that were being spewed into the air: kill them savages, let's see their eyes pop, bring them damnations out here and I'll take care of "em for ya', let's get this show on the road, forget the hangins' and let us have at "em.
"Oh, no," I sighed, covering my face with my hands. "I can't believe this is happening."
"Me either," Mitch said. "Where you think they are?"
"Well, they are all looking towards the court house," I answered. "I suppose they are being interrogated right now."
"Well, they're done for, I tell you now."
I pulled another man aside and asked him "how were the suspects caught?"
"Aye," started the old man, he reeked of booze. "Friedman himself came a runnin' in here like mad, screamin' "them damn sons of bitches butchered my family!' And that harlot Rita came to him and tried settlin' him down enough to get clear of what he was sayin' and all. He just kept screamin' "they killed them all, they killed them all! A gang of men went searchin" for the Indians and brought them back a while later in shackles."
The man tried walking away, but I pulled him back.
"Where is Friedman now?" I asked.
"Where is he now?" hiccupped the man, and then bellowed a burp of a foul stench that seemed to emanate through the town square. "I don't know. All he said was that those three Indian bastards murdered his family and then he started walkin' back to his house."
I lowered and shook my head.
"Am I free to leave you?" the drunk asked.
"Yes," I said softly and he reassembled with the crowd, which was growing more volatile with every second that ticked by.
"So what you think is going on?" asked Mitch.
"I don't know," I said, turning to him. "I think Friedman fabricated his story to cover up what he had done."
"So what?" Mitch said. "We gonna wait to watch them hang like flies on sticky paper?"
"All I know is that three innocent men are going to pay a guilty man's retribution," I answered. "What do you think we should do about this?"
"I don't think we have no choice," he said. "We ain't detective men or anybody important enough to sway the course of things. Nothin' to do but let things go their own way."
"Well, I'm not going to stand here and watch as three of my closest friends hang," I snapped. "I'm going to find Friedman and get to the bottom of this before innocent lives are lost."
"But what if they aren't innocent?"
"Then I am wrong," I said. "Simple as that."
I crossed the dilapidated bridge that crossed a small, steady stream and began the property owned by Lewis Friedman, re-thinking the possible scenarios that could occur. The possibility that he could kill me for trying to uncover the truth was among the most imperative of my concerns. But I wouldn't let fear hinder my hope to vindicate Tomas and his brothers.
I came into view of the house, a shanty held up by nails, boards, and anxious determination. The house itself seemed to portray the unfortunate lives the Friedman's lived. Often, the children were seen in town begging for spare change and digging through trash for scraps of food. How heartbreaking it was to see the youngest daughter, dressed in rags and sometimes shoeless, emulate her two older siblings' every move to bring a little more food to the dinner table.
He was on the porch, sitting in a chair, head down, and his hands lost in his graying hair. He heard me approaching and stood up. He looked me from head to toe and said "you're that Daniel Harris boy aren't you?"
"Correct," I said. "And you're Lewis Friedman. I am sorry for your loss, sir."
"Eh," he said, sitting back down in his chair lowering his head and staring at the termite eaten planks that built his porch. "So am I."
"What do you mean you're sorry?" I asked.
He raised his eyes at me, staring straight into mine, and then lowered them again. His eyes showed evidence of either remorse or fear of letting something that could reveal his secret slip. He rubbed his calloused hands together habitually.
I decided to excuse the question.
"Are you alright, Mr. Friedman?" I asked.
"No," he said softly, almost whispering. "No, I am not alright. My whole family is gone and I-"
He buried his face in his hands and I could hear him start to sob. I stood there listening to this man crying, this man that I thought only an hour earlier to be heartless and deceiving, and after seeing him in such a weak state, I started to pity him.
"I have spent my whole life believing that I have been a son of God," he said, trying not to choke on his sobs. "And now I feel I am the son of none other than Satan himself. I have done everything I could to protect and take care of my family, believing the good Lord would be facilitating me every step of the way. My wife had a miscarriage two months ago, and shortly after, I was let go from my job at the mill. Even when I had my job at the mill we were going through hard times, ever since Elise, our oldest daughter, was born. I told my wife to be discreet about it all, not tell anyone but her family who lives in Wyoming. But one day, Mr. Anderson and Reverend Meyers came to see me and gave me their condolences. Not only was I humiliated, I was infuriated. Not only was I unable to take care of my family, but my dignity was being taken from me. And all I could say for a while was why? Why me? Where was He when my wife lost the baby? Where was He when I lost my job? And then I asked myself, was He ever there at all?"
He started bawling.
Family, to a man, is paramount to anything else, and when a man sees the suffering his family endures, he can't help but believe he is at fault, and will do anything to end their misery.
"So I did it," he continued, trying to wipe away his tears and to control his sobs. "I asked them if they would all like to go on a walk down by the creek, and that's where I did it. At first, I was going to turn myself in, but I grew scared. I'd rather live my life a coward than being hanged and having everyone know what I did. But I suppose that will all change when you leave here."
He stood up and smiled at me feebly.
"You must think I am crazy," he said, wiping his tears away again.
I studied him. He looked terrible. His graying hair was disarrayed, his eyes were bloodshot and held dark bags, his face was rough with black, coarse stubble, and his clothes were stained with brown splotches of whiskey.
"I don't think you are crazy," I replied. "I think you are a tired and distraught man who did his best, but life got the best of you and you caved.
But you know what you need to do to redeem yourself. You need to go back into town and confess; turn yourself in and save three lives."
He shook his head and laughed softly.
"I can't do that," he said. "It is too late. Three Indians accused of murder? In this town? Hell, they are probably dead already."
"You don't know that," I snapped. "You need to at least try and right your wrong. They are my friends. Please come back with me."
"Are you listening to yourself?" he said. "I can't make this right, not after what I did. I am sorry about your friends. If I could take it all back, I would. But I can't. There is nothing you and I could do about this. I am sorry."
"Please," I implored. "Please do what's right. Please, help my friends. Please!"
He turned and entered his house without uttering another word, his face contorted to start crying, and after the screen door slammed behind him, I did hear him start to cry. And I still stood there afterwards, screaming at him, amazed at his repudiation of my begging.
After a while, I gave up and started running back to town. When I reached the battered bridge, I stopped at the sound of the harsh bang of a gunshot. I didn't look back.
A second later, I continued running.
I could already hear the ignorant mass of people as they flouted the rules of normal decency with their cat calls and angry curses as I entered town. My lungs burned from running and sweat poured down my face, the humid summer heat not helping me any.
Mr. Friedman was right-I was too late.
I could already see Tomas, Ed, and Michael on the gallows, nooses around their necks, those mortified expressions on their leathery, sun-aged faces, beer bottles and trash strewn about their feet. I tried breaking through the crowd, but there were too many people for me to push through. So all I could do was stand in the back and yell as loud as I could, even with my throat as dry as it was from running.
"Stop," I yelled, cupping my hands over my mouth. "Stop. They're innocent. It was Friedman. It was Friedman!"
It was no use, no one could hear my voice above all the others' shouting. I could barely hear my own.
I tried thinking of any way I could forestall their execution, but all I could hear was Mr. Friedman's voice tell me over and over it is too late, it is too late, it is too late.
"Tomas, Ed, and Michael, last names unknown, of Blue Crow County," began Sheriff Garrity, "you have been tried and convicted, without doubt, of the murders of Rebecca, Elise, Andrew, and Lila Friedman. You are to be executed by hanging for your crimes. Any last words you have you may say now."
The crowd became dead silent.
Tomas looked at his terrified brothers and then back at the hungry crowd of vultures. My heart beat faster with every breath, afraid it would burst by the time of the culmination that quickly impended. I could not stand to watch the three of them stand up there with nooses around their necks, knowing that they knew no matter what they said, they would hang innocently like ivy off an old, stone wall.
I took advantage of the silence.
"They didn't do it!" I yelled. "It was Friedman."
The whole crowd turned their heads towards me, the beaming of all those intense eyes upon me made me sweat more profusely. I cleared my throat and repeated myself.
"It was Friedman," I said. "He said so himself. They're innocent."
"Is that Danny Harris?" a voice said amongst the crowd, who I recognized to be Mr. Anderson's. "Don't listen to him. He joins those savages in their sacrilegious ways. He has no authority here. Excuse him."
"Friedman himself told us that he saw these men murder his family," the Sheriff claimed.
"Is there any evidence other than Mr. Friedman's word?" I asked.
"We have enough evidence, boy," Mr. Anderson hissed. "They are as guilty as they are filthy. They live but a mile from where the bodies were found, and Mr. Friedman told us himself that he had seen them do it. What other evidence do you need?"
"The murder weapon, Mr. Friedman's alibi, their alibi, witnesses. That evidence!"
"Enough of this nonsense," Mr. Anderson replied. "Sheriff, pay no mind to Mr. Harris. He obviously has no authority on this matter. Continue."
The crowd burst into an uproar of agreement, which gave me no chance to speak further.
"Since Mr. Harris took it upon himself to interrupt your last words, we will skip them," the Sheriff replied coldly. "May God have mercy on your souls."
He nodded to one of his deputies and the deputy pulled the lever.
The creaking of the boards as they fell and the sound of the town's peoples' rapturous applauding and cries still haunt me to this day. They all smiled and laughed hysterically through their false teeth as three of my closest friends swung softly like dying pendulums. Mr. Friedman's voice echoed through my head again, with those words that made me shudder under the blistering July sun.
"was He ever there at all?