"Open the door, Jesse Hall, before we break it down!"
And the door did start to splinter and bulge, as the mob pounded furiously against it. If he went for his Winchester, they'd be certain to shoot him with no questions asked.
"Jesse, we know you're in there. We saw you through the window. Don't make us hurt your family!"
Emily took her place beside him at the door and motioned to the children to stay in the kitchen. She was trembling, and Jesse had no time to comfort her. He pushed her away.
"Go," he said, pointing to the kitchen.
"Do as I say, woman."
Obediently, she moved away. Jesse saw the tears in her eyes, smelled her fear. It melded with the scent of his own fear, as he stiffly turned the knob and pulled open the door.
"Jesse Hall, we found your axe in the brush behind Nell Lindsey's house!" said a bearded man with torch in hand.
"What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Mistuh Thorne, you know I been chopping wood for Miss Nell," Jesse said. "You know I been helping her with her chores since her daddy passed away."
Another man stepped forward. "All we know is that Miss Nell is dead, hacked to death. She was found this afternoon, along with your axe, Jesse, and it was covered with blood."
"Yessuh, I was there this morning, like I was there yesterday morning, and I was going back tomorrow. I left my axe, yes, but Miss Nell was alive when I left at noon. I swear it."
"You killed the others, too, didn't you? You're just a white-woman lovin' nigger, ain't you?"
Jesse shook his head and backed into the house, but they were quickly upon him. Emily screamed somewhere behind him, and he wanted to tell her everything would be all right, that this was all a terrible mistake. But they were dragging him down the porch steps and across the yard before he got the chance. That's when he saw the rope in the lawyer's hand.
"What you gonna do?" he wailed, struggling against three of them with all his strength. "You gonna hang me on my own land, in front of my wife and boys? I didn't kill nobody!"
"Take him to the big oak at the bend," the lawyer said, "and shut him up!"
"But, Mistuh Kurtz, you's a lawyer," Jesse pleaded. "You know this ain't the right way!"
"I said shut him up!" Kurtz pulled a shorter length of rope from his saddlebag and shoved it at one of the men. "And tie him up. We don't want him getting away."
Jesse was too stunned to resist when they bound his hands and shoved a dirty handkerchief into his mouth. He was too stunned to feel the pain in his shoulder when they threw him into the back of the wagon and tossed a quilt over him. He faintly heard the voices, felt the wagon begin to move, but he couldn't accept any of it. This can't be the end, he thought.
The wagon arrived at its destination too quickly with no time remaining for Jesse to devise a plan of escape. He tried to kick the quilt off, but he couldn't manage it without the freedom of his hands. He could sense they had moved away from the wagon and for a few precious moments, he thought he could manage to escape, thought he could get back to his family and run from this God-forsaken town. For the chance to grow old and see his boys become men, he would have given up his home and the ten acres; he would have given up almost anything. He rolled blindly to the edge of the wagon and wriggled off in an attempt to free himself from the quilt, but he had barely hit the ground when he felt rough hands around his ankles. They were dragging him across the distance between the wagon and the oak tree, and now he did feel the pain as his head and shoulders met with each obstacle in the path. He moaned and was rewarded with a swift kick to the side that only caused him to cry out louder. The quilt became tangled around his head, and he thrashed violently, gasping for air.
"Get that thing off him," he thought he heard Kurtz say. "We don't want to be cheated of our justice, do we? Why it wouldn't be justice at all if he died before we got him to the tree."
The journey across the ground seemed infinitely longer than the journey in the back of the wagon and by the time they reached the tree, Jesse had quit struggling altogether. He sat on the dirt beneath the tree that no grass grew under and stared up at the branch that would take his life in a few short moments.
"Who will be my judge?" he asked. "And who will be my jury?"
Not one of them could look him in the eye. The silence was overwhelming, and it occurred to Jesse that he ought to pray—pray for his own justice that he might live, and pray for his soul lest he die.
"Hear me out," he said when they hoisted him up onto the horse.
"Please, hear me out!" he screamed when they slipped the rope around his neck.
"I guess we can allow that much," Kurtz said. He stood at ease with his hands crossed in front of him, and his expression of amusement was accented by the glow of a nearby torch. "Well, go ahead," he said. "Let's hear it."
Jesse sat erect in the saddle and when he opened his mouth to speak, it seemed even the night sounds died away, leaving an eerie silence that made some of the men move uneasily before him. Stretched out long and thin behind them, their shadows seemed the shadows of demons waiting to engage in a sacrificial dance of destruction.
"I'm just a poor man with a wife and four sons," he began, "and all my life I minded my own business. I ain't messed in nobody else’s' affairs. And all my life I believed in the white man's law because it seemed fair—that a man is innocent until proven guilty. But tonight, there ain't no justice and all of you is being cowards—pulling a man from his supper, from his family, to hang him in the dark. No, there ain't no justice here tonight, but I swear on the good life I've lived that justice will find each and every one of you."
"That's enough," Kurtz said. "Boys, let's get this over with."
Nobody moved, and Jesse thought he'd gotten through to them. He imagined they were waking from some sort of spell and coming to the realization that what they were doing was terribly wrong.
"Damn it, are we going to stand out here all night in the cold?" Kurtz stared menacingly at the others. "Am I going to have to do this by myself?
Thorne, the bearded man, started toward the horse and looked back at the others, who still seemed unsure of what they were doing out in the darkness, beneath this tree and the black man with the rope around his neck.
"Justice will find you all," Jesse said, as the bearded man walked over to the rear of the horse. "All of you!" he screamed when the final command came.
They all stood solemnly, as he struggled in the open air. The rope seemed to tighten around his neck with every pass his body made through the space that belonged to him alone. As long as he dared to breathe, he knew no one would cross the invisible line into that space.
He didn't know if it was the Christian God, the Vodoun gods, or the devil himself who granted him one last favor, but at the moment their faces started to fade and he felt the embrace of unconsciousness, he had a vision. It was a glorious vision of heightened proportions, and suddenly the truth came shining before him like a burst of lightning. He knew who the real murderer was, and that knowledge tore at him, consumed him, until the act of dying was just a mere technicality, an obstacle to be overcome.
It was during the very last moment of his life, with his very last breath, that Jesse Hall forgot about the God of Christianity and called upon the spirits of his ancestors.
Give me the power, give me the will, and give me the immortality to make right this terrible wrong.I offer my soul to you for the soul of the man who caused my death and the deaths of innocent others. Use me in whatever way you must to avenge this injustice. I am yours.
The struggle for life ended with the last twitch of the body, and one of the men turned away, as if ashamed of the picture before him. Kurtz took a knife from his pocket and walked hesitantly beneath the limb from which Jesse's body still rocked slowly back and forth in the river wind.
"Justice will be mine," the swaying rope seemed to whisper.
Justice will be mine.