James Lincoln Tasker thought he'd understood Judge O'Herlihy when he'd said "hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead." He just had no idea that the last part was going to take so long. Yet here he was, still swinging at the end of a hangman's noose in the shadow of the courthouse and not even feeling sleepy.
"This usually take this long?" he asked, trying in vain to stretch his hands, bound tightly behind his back.
The sheriff didn't take his eyes off the wagon delivering supplies over to Kennedy's store. "I ain't here for the conversation, Tasker," he drawled. "I'm just waitin' for you to have the good sense to up'n die already."
Tasker would have chuckled if not for the thick cord of rope digging into his throat. "I'm tryin', Sheriff. To be honest, I'm as confused about all of this as anybody."
"Mebbe you should stop thinkin' ‘bout it," the sheriff offered.
"Man has a lot of time to think when he's hanging around dying."
"Well then mebbe you should think ‘bout what it was got you up there in the first place."
"Can't honestly say my mind's been on that particular subject."
"Figgers," the sheriff spat.
"Now Sheriff, what good does it do me thinking about something that's already done? I killed Barrow and that's that."
"Yer regret is downright heartbreakin'."
"Why should I regret it? He was a downright bastard and I'd do it again if I got half the chance. I just wish that whatever damnation awaits me would
hurry up and git here so I can stop swaying here like some fool in the wind."
The sheriff turned towards him, and Tasker wished he hadn't. Maggots crawled in hollow eyes, and a grin like a whip stretched his pale skin tightly over the hard lines of the skull beneath. Flies burst from his mouth along with a harsh, piercing laugh.
"Oh, I think you just got your damnation," he cackled, and vanished. The town shimmered away along with the sheriff, and only the squat, grunting shapes approaching over the bleak, sun-baked plain remained to hear the screams that would be James Lincoln Tasker's song for eternity.
"Come on, we gotta get home!" Jason shouted as he sprinted past the courthouse. Michael struggled to keep up with his older brother, and stopped, out of breath, in the shade of the huge oak that had been next to the courthouse as long as he could remember.
He stared up at it as he caught his breath. He'd seen it hundreds of times growing up – the gnarled trunk, the leaves that somehow never seemed as green as they should. One long branch dangled down towards the ground away from the others, swaying in a gust of wind from the storm he and his brother were racing home.
And Michael could have sworn he heard it scream.