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Pioneer Justice on a Distant Planet

by Charles C. Cole

When ordered to execute our outpost’s last indigenous resident, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, I conveniently embraced the state’s position: public safety first.

The convicted felon had a crowded trial with a court-appointed defender. Judge Hemon Watley declared him guilty of murdering one of our own. In truth, many knew, the town drunk had simply stumbled and fallen face-first into Helo’s spiky “alien” back.

Through a lottery, I was the designated executioner. I could have declined, but I’d have been ostracized, and they’d have assigned someone else, maybe not as sympathetic. Right or wrong, I declined to involve myself with ethical debates.

As the towering gold-and-black lizard-man, nicknamed “Helo” for gila monster, came lumbering toward me, he must have known the events about to transpire. He didn’t speak English, but he understood it. I mean, if you told him to scat, he’d scat. If you told him to eat, he’d eat. If you told him to bring something or drop something, he’d bring something or drop something.

Though Helo was mute, we assumed he comprehended English, enough to follow orders, which was what he did plenty of at Biddle’s Lumber. In his time in the stockade, he’d seen plenty of folks ascend the gallows, so he knew what “execution procedures” looked like. And he must have known, whether he agreed or not, that we took pride in executing only guilty parties, no mistakes.

When Helo approached the ramp to the gallows and observed me standing by the noose, I’m certain he thought I was a pivotal dark force in what remained in his pitifully short life. But the way I saw it, I was just a man doing a job, representing the local government. Keeping the peace.

“The prisoner will approach,” said no-nonsense Marshal Ewing, formally.

Deputy Landers gave Helo a gentle prod with his riot baton.

Helo glared in a way that made Landers uncomfortable and made me grateful we’d never stand this close again. He stood over seven feet. Even a rodeo star back home couldn’t have tossed the noose over his broad head. I glanced meaningfully at Landers.

“Helo, kneel,” said Landers, with a hint of regret, probably remembering his dearly departed servant, as she’d been related to Helo.

When Helo didn’t react, Landers gave a firm smack behind the knees. Helo dropped. I quickly tightened the noose under his chin and around his scaly jaw.

Father Kiley spoke. “Does his kind believe in God? I don’t want to waste everyone’s time.”

“Short and sweet,” said Marshal Ewing. “It’s a formality; we treat everyone the same, non-humans and humans alike.”

“Wherever you travel next, may you find peace and tolerance.” He waved his hand in the air.

The marshal grunted and bowed his head.

“Helo, stand,” said Landers, tugging on the noose. Helo stood.

Marshal Ewing called to the onlookers. “Many of you traveled a ways to see justice carried out, so it didn’t make sense to leave your kids alone on the farm. I’ll give you a moment to cover their innocent eyes, then we’ll proceed.” Nobody moved.

“Get on with it,” a male voice called out. “Some of us would like to get home before dark.”

Marshal Ewing unholstered his sidearm. He aimed straight up, then thought better of it and aimed at the dirt alley beyond him. At the sound of the shot, I pulled back the lever that released the trapdoor. Helo dropped like a full bag of oats tossed from the freight courier. Some young woman screamed in anticipation. Helo, the crown of his head sticking up through the hole in the platform, landed safely on both feet, with slack in the noose.

“Is that it?” a little boy asked. “I thought there’d be more action.”

Ewing rubbed his palm across his stubby gray beard.

“Tall fellow. Guess we could truss him up, like calf roping,” Landers whispered.

“If you think he’ll let you, go for it.”

I untied the noose from the gallows, and Landers led Helo back to the ramp, escorting him by the rope like a slave at auction.

“The prisoner will approach,” said Ewing, restarting the ceremony.

“Again?” somebody called out. “It won’t make no difference.” The crowd tittered.

“Helo, kneel,” said Landers as he stretched a piggin’ string between Helo’s wrists and ankles. Helo didn’t struggle.

“At least give him a running start,” joked a voice.

“May you find forgiveness in the hereafter,” said Father Kiley.

Ewing fired. I pulled the lever.

“Damn, the big oaf won’t die!”

I looked down the hole. Helo’s neck frill, rigid and sharp as tacks, had cut right through the soaped one-inch Manila hemp like it was wet tissue paper.

“We could use a chain,” Landers offered.

“No, we can’t; it ain’t legal,” said Ewing. “There’s precedence in everything we’re doing.”

“Not with one of his kind,” said Landers.

Judge Watley watched from the balcony of his second-floor chambers, quietly smoking his carved ivory pipe. He sent thirteen-year old Timmy Smithers, the courthouse “go-fer,” running over with a note.

“What’s it say?” someone hollered.

“According to Judge Watley and the Code of Territorial Justice, in the course of a fair and public execution, if the accused survives two earnest attempts at capital punishment, the sentence must be immediately commuted to a life of incarceration without parole. The law is clear.”

“The law wasn’t written with his people in mind,” grumbled someone.

Ewing spoke: “Y’all came to witness history and that hasn’t changed. Today, for the first time, a native Squamata approached our man-made gallows for breaking our man-made laws, almost like he was an equal. Too little, too late. Tomorrow he’ll be moved to the prison in New Dodge City, never to be seen in public again. Government loves due process. Take your last looks and go home.”

A little boy called, “If he’s the last, shouldn’t he be in a zoo?”

“Zoos are for endangered animals, to study them, maybe save them,” said Ewing, winking. “Too late for his kind.”

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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