Prologue, Part One: Windy Day for a Hangin’

          It was a town that a body came upon kinda sudden-like. At least that’s how I happened upon it.
          I was riding through the mountains, and some pretty rugged, steep ones at that. Lots of Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. I topped a little rise, wound my way down the other side of it, dodging tree branches, and there, fifty yards in front of me, lay a small, rather quaint, settlement. Well, quaint from the standpoint of the scenery. A stream curved around the southern edge of the town and the north was bordered with the same kinds of trees and terrain I had been wandering through for the past few hours. The town itself, though, could have been placed in the middle of the prairie and been mistaken for a thousand other such places. One dusty street lined with wooden, false fronted buildings, several of them two-storied with cracking white paint. They weren’t in bad shape; the citizens of--I read the hand painted sign at the edge of town--"Windy" had some civic pride. But they weren’t going to be in any of the better homes and gardens magazines anytime soon.
          I will say that the town was well named. A west wind—the direction I was headed at the moment—was whipping up pretty good, slicing between the hills that surrounded this small valley and right up the main street between the buildings. I could tell that the valley opened up a little west of here; Windy was apparently at the base of a horseshoe.
          Anyway, it was mid-September and not too early to get chilly in the higher elevations. I already had my coat on so I turned up the collar as I rode into town. My next impression of Windy was…it was empty. I didn’t see anybody. All the shops were closed. I could see goods in the clothing store, general store, haberdashery, etc., just…no people. Where is everybody? And I really thought that was a fairly intelligent question.
          I found out soon enough. The town followed the flow of the river at the southern edge, which meant it curved back to the north. As I got near the bend in Windy, I could hear singing; the wind helped bring it in my direction. The music was religious—“Shall We Gather at the River?” if I heard correctly. Not that I knew a whole lot of songs like that, but I’d ridden by a church a time or two in my life, and that seemed to be a favorite. It also seemed to be a favorite at hangings, and I was becoming suspicious that that might have been what I had ridden into.
          Yep. I made the corner and there spread out below me—Windy slid down a hill some—was the whole scene. Courthouse, gallows, mob of people, preacher standing on the stage of the gallows leading…”Shall We Gather At the River?” I stopped in the middle of the street and watched for a couple of minutes. Since I had so fortuitously stumbled upon this town, I thought I’d get something to eat and buy some supplies. I didn’t especially want to watch a hanging. And I actually debated whether I ought to just ride on through and not stop. But I reckon that bit of human emotion that likes to gape and gawk at the misfortunes of others got the better of me, so I rode down the knoll, hitched my horse in front of a saloon, and sauntered over towards the multitudes.
         There weren’t many, but there were about 100, which seemed to be the entire population of Windy, from what I’d seen so far. The town looked bigger than that, though, at least building-wise. Maybe some of the good folks of Windy were sleeping in that day, though it was almost noon now.
          Regardless, the current tune they were bellowing out was “Rock of Ages.” I had a few people look me up and down as I stood a little aloof from the crowd, but nobody approached. There was nobody on the gallows, either, except the preacher, but just then, I saw the courthouse door open—no doubt the jail was in there—and two men, sheriff and deputy—led out a man who didn’t appear to be too happy about his immediate future. He was crying and wailing and bawling and carrying on like he was about to meet the devil. Which was probably the case.
          Anyway, the voices of the singers rose in volume, thankfully drowning out the blubbering of the soon-to-be-deceased. The preacher, a big man in black suit, black hat, and white shirt, was certainly proud of his voice—he could be heard above everybody. But then, I’d never met one of those fellows who wasn’t proud of his voice. I was convinced that was why most of those gents went into that profession. They couldn’t do anything but talk and they liked the sound of their own voices. But maybe I’m being too judgmental. Probably not….
          The sheriff and deputy dragged the poor ill-fated miscreant up the steps to the platform of the gallows. He was still bawling like a calf looking for its momma, but nobody was paying him any mind, folks just sang louder to cover his noise. I was a little annoyed with the whole thing; why does this stuff have to be dragged out so long? Just put a rope around his neck and push him off…But there’s that bit of human emotion that likes to…gape and gawk…and perhaps is supplemented by a morsel of cruelty to our fellow man, enjoying the sufferings of the damned. Especially when singing religious songs.
          The noose was placed around the neck of the malefactor, but it wasn’t easy. He fought and shrieked and rumbled, acting for all the world like he didn’t want to go through with it. He screamed his innocence, and—the singing having ceased—I heard the sheriff tell him to shut up and die like a man. Easy for him to say.
          The preacher then polished the stained glass of his vocal chords and proceeded to preach the depraved fellow straight to hell. “This is the fate of those estranged, dastardly sons of Belial who frolic about with the Wicked One, who habitate dens of iniquity, who slither and slide with the foul creatures who damn their own souls by their cowardly misdeeds…” I didn’t hear much more of it because I was trying to decide if “habitate” was really a word.
          Well, while the preacher prolonged the agony of the “damned,” the latter continued to blubber his innocence. “I didn’t do it…I’m not….” I didn’t get to hear who, or what, he wasn’t because at that exact moment, the fat lady in front of me let out a sneeze that must have echoed through the canyons for 50 miles. I was only glad she was in front of me and not behind, or I might have been echoing through the canyons for 50 miles, too.
         There was an old timer standing about 10 feet away from me. He had a bent back, leaning on a cane, with long white hair under a gray hat that had probably been white when he had bought it. His clothes were gray, his boots were gray, he was gray, except for his long white hair and flowing white mustache. He looked like a decent sort, though, so I strolled over and struck up a conversation.
          “What did he do?” I asked the fellow.
          He harrumphed. “Sidewinder if’n there ever was one. Law’s been after his hide for three-four years now.”
          That didn’t really answer my question, so I tried a different approach. “Murder?”
          “Yep. Kilt five men in a shootout, one of ‘em still in his bed, but what really got ‘im in trouble was the woman he done in a few months later. Held up a stage and drilled her dead while he was a-robbin’ the rest of the folks. He’s a-gonna get what he deserves. Finally.”
          I frowned. Something about that sounded familiar, but it didn’t quite register with me. I looked back up to the platform. The preacher had finished his oratory and was now praying to what he obviously believed was a deaf God. Maybe that’s where all that wind was coming from earlier…except it was cold, not hot…The solemn folks of Windy all had their heads down, men with their hats off. Old Timer gave me a bit of scowl, so I quickly removed my hat as well.
          All the while, the fellow with the rope around his neck was crying an ocean of tears. “I didn’t do it…I didn’t do it…I’m innocent…I’m not….” And the lady sneezed again. So I still didn’t know who, or what, the fellow didn’t think he was. Guilty, probably. They all think they are innocent or somebody else when they’ve got a noose around their neck.
          The preacher quit praying and piously walked off the platform and down the steps, a Bible that looked like it had never been opened crooked under his arm. The sheriff asked the outlaw if he had any final words. He re-proclaimed his innocence and said again who/what he wasn’t. This time I heard him, and a chill ran up my spine because it was a who. The sheriff told him that was enough and made a motion to the deputy who was going to pull the lever, the lever that would send a man to his death.
          I leaned over to the Old Timer. “Who did he say he wasn’t? I mean, who is he?”
          The Old Timer told me.
          The deputy pulled the lever…and the trap door opened.
          I pulled my gun…and fired.
          The man with the rope around his neck fell—and he hit the ground with a thump and a grunt. Alive. My shot had neatly severed the rope above his head.
          Not too surprisingly, everybody turned their heads and looked at me. Many of them in shock, most of them in transparent disapproval.
          I kept my gun in my paw.
          The sheriff, a tall lanky fellow with a droopy mustache and brown hair under a brown hat, was still on the platform, which was about 20 yards away from me. Hands on his hips, not smiling, he looked at me and said, none-too-friendly, “You want to give an explanation why you did that, mister? And you’d better have a good one.”
          “The best,” I responded.
          “Oh? And what might that be?”
          “The man was telling the truth. He’s innocent. He’s not who you think he is.”
          “And just how do you know that?”
          “Because, my dear sheriff, I am Rob Conners.”