The primary idea of this tale, which caused me to try this story, was put to me by my friend Denham Forrest (aka The Wanderer), who is, or was (he has stopped posting to this site), one of the most entertaining and talented writers on this and other sites, and from the song Long Black Veil. (Check it out on YouTube if you like)
The motivation for me to pull this story from my archive of unfinished works (I started it in 2014), came from Ms. Randi Black and her invitation to join with others for the “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” event. The theme of the event is Gothic Horror. I’m not sure this actually fits that premise, but I like the story so here it is.
This is a little different type of story than I normally write, but I’m trying to grow and needed to step outside my comfort zone. I’m not sure if “Loving Wives” is the right category, but I think it fits.
One last thing: don’t take me to task too much for the legalities in the story. I know it is hard to believe that this could have occurred in modern times, but things like this did happen in rural areas in days gone by.
As usual, and especially in this case, critiques, comments and emails are requested and appreciated.
Sheriff Boyd Rawlings, of Van Buren, Missouri, stepped out of his patrol car. He had just been elected to his third term as Carter County Sheriff. Rawlings hitched up on his gun belt to settle it back into place. At age 36, he wasn’t a big belly southern Sheriff, but he wasn’t far from it. Standing 5 feet 9 in his cowboy boots, he weighed a little over 215 pounds. His face was ruddy, especially his nose, both from working out in the weather and from too much whiskey.
It was early evening and the sun was just beginning to drop behind Black Mountain. The evening was cold, and it would be a dark night with absolutely no moonlight. His breath puffed out like a smoke cloud as he softly closed his door in front of the house.
The small house sat at the head of a holler that opened up to the fields of the farm. It was late fall and most of the trees had no leaves on their branches. There were a few pine trees along the path that led to the first of the fields. There were several large oak and hickory trees around the house that looked like huge skeletal creatures waiting to pounce. The cold wind that was blowing freed them from their morbidity and allowed them to dance and sway.
Rawlings walked up three steps onto the porch that ran across the front of a log cabin and he pulled his Colt .45 from its holster with his right hand. He carried a set of handcuffs in his left. Boyd used the butt of the pistol to bang on the door.
“Benson, come out,” Boyd ordered. “Keep your hands free and where I can see them.”
Slowly the door opened and Travis Benson stepped out onto the porch. Travis was a young looking 35, tall and trim at 190 pounds. With his dark hair, blue eyes and a square chin, most single women in town, and some married ones, considered him to be ruggedly handsome.
“What’s with the Benson stuff, Boyd?” Travis asked in a puzzled voice. “We’ve been best friends since we were high school freshman; you’ve never called me by my last name.” Looking down, he saw the Colt in Boyd’s hand. “Why the gun?” Now his tone was a cross between puzzlement and anger.
Sheriff Rawlings pointed the Colt at Travis. “Don’t give me any trouble and put your hands out in front of you. Our friendship won’t stop me from shooting you if you try anything.”
Travis looked at the Colt, then at Boyd’s eyes and put out his hands. Boyd tossed the restraints to Travis. “Put those on and then we’ll talk.” Not having a choice, Travis put one cuff around his left wrist and the other one around his right. “Lock ‘em up, Travis,” Boyd ordered. Travis pushed on the single strand of each cuff until they ratcheted into the base and locked with a solid click.
“Now, where were you last night Travis?”
“All night? You alone?”
Travis hesitated for just a second. “Yep, I worked on the corral until dusk, cooked supper and went to bed around eight, I reckon.” He had not been alone but he couldn’t tell Boyd that. Travis and Boyd’s wife, Emmy had spent most of the night together; and it wasn’t the first time.
Travis and Emmy had been high school sweethearts. They planned on getting married when they graduated and Travis got a job. Van Buren was a small town and there weren’t many jobs available, so Travis enlisted in the Army to get a stake put together so he and Emmy could marry. He also hoped to learn a skill that would make finding a job a bit easier.
Two events happened while he was in the Army that would lead to the secret meetings between the young lovers. Travis’ parents died during his third year in the Army. He came home for the funeral and found his folks had left him their farm and cabin. Travis had one more year in his enlistment before he could come home and run the farm.
The other event affected Emmy the most, but also broke Travis’ heart. Her parents hit hard times and they were about to lose their business and their home. Boyd Rawlings told Emmy if she would marry him, he would pay off her parents’ home and pay all the back bills from the business. Emmy liked Boyd, they’d gone to the same school, but she didn’t love him. She loved Travis and was waiting on him to come home.
Emmy and her parents didn’t have anywhere to go if they lost the house and business, and there was no chance of making a living in Van Buren, so Emmy decided she had to take care of them and agreed to marry Boyd. She had tears leaking from her eyes during the ceremony.
“What’s this about Boyd?”
“Jimmy Dawson was killed in front of the town hall just after full dark last night,” Boyd answered. “Shot with a .357 caliber gun. You own a Dan Wesson .357, don’t you?”
“Yes, I own a .357, but I didn’t kill him, Boyd. He ran those whores, made bad moonshine, cheated at cards and stole things when he had the chance. It’s no surprise he got shot.”
“Got two witnesses at the scene who gave a description that sounds a lot like you. They said they saw a man running away from the body. Said the man was about 6 feet, slender. Said they saw dark hair when the man’s hat fell off when he started running. Sure sounds like you Travis.”
“Sounds like a lot of other men, too, Boyd. How did those witnesses see the color of the murderer’s hair; it was the dark of the moon?”
“That big mercury light they put up on the town hall was burnin’ bright. You know it’s almost as bright as daytime.”
I didn’t kill Dawson.” Travis shook his head. “Hell, I didn’t like him, but I had no reason to shoot him.”
“Where’s your Dan Wesson, Travis?”
“It’s on the night stand by the bed. C’mon, I’ll show you.” Travis turned and started to go back into the house.
“Hold it right there, Travis,” Rawlings ordered, and cocked his pistol. “I’ll put you in the back of the patrol car, and then I’ll go check on the gun.”
Holding on to his arm, Boyd directed Travis toward the back door of the patrol car and opened it. Using a technique every cop has used to put someone into a car, Boyd put his hand on the back of Travis’ head to protect the suspect. Instead of protecting Travis, Boyd used his leverage to ram Travis’ head into the door frame.
“Watch your head Travis.” After he put his man into the car, Boyd leaned over. “I know you weren’t alone last night, and I know who you were with. Now you’re gonna pay, Travis, you’re gonna pay big-time. I know you didn’t kill Jimmy, I did, and good riddance, but I’m gonna see you convicted of the murder and watch you hang. And then my slut wife is gonna pay. Yes, Emmy is gonna pay for fooling around on me her own self.”
Boyd stood up, slammed the door and walked into the house to retrieve the .357 pistol, pulling on a thin pair of gloves. He came out onto the front porch and fired two shots into the ground in front of the cabin. Boyd dropped the big pistol into an evidence bag and removed his gloves.
“I do believe this weapon’s been fired recently,” he said and laughed. Boyd climbed into the driver’s seat and turned half way around. “And the only finger prints on the gun are yours, Travis.”
“You fired that gun just now, Boyd.” Travis’ jaws were clenched in anger. “I’ll tell them about that, you back-stabbing asshole.”
“I’ll say I didn’t, and I’ll say you tried to hide the gun. Now who are they gonna believe, Travis? They gonna believe an accused murderer or the fine upstanding County Sheriff?”
After a short 20-minute drive, the patrol car pulled into the Sheriff’s reserved parking space at the courthouse. Van Buren was the county seat of Carter County. The courthouse served both Carter County and the locals of the small town. There was a lawn, benches and a walking trail through the large courthouse square that surrounded the large quarried-stone building.
The building contained two courtrooms, county records from as far back as the early 1800’s, as well as the town’s records, the Sheriff’s office and a jail with two cells. The jail usually held men who had over-indulged in moonshine or whisky, and once in a while a husband in a domestic abuse case. Tonight, it would hold Travis Benson, an innocent man accused of murder.
The next morning at 9:00, Travis was led into the main courtroom to be arraigned on the charge of murder in the first degree. Randolph Rawlings, Boyd’s cousin, was the presiding judge. He was also the owner of the bank and the richest man in the county.
“Do you have an attorney, young man?” Judge Rawlings asked.
“No sir. I was brought here last night late, and this is the first time I’ve been out of my cell,” Travis answered.
“Sheriff Rawlings, make sure this young man gets to use the phone so he can obtain legal counsel.”
“Yes sir, Your Honor. I’ll do that first thing.”
Turning back to Travis the Judge continued. “You have been charged with the pre-meditated murder of one James Dawson. How do you plead? We’ll go ahead, and if once you get representation you want to change or amend your plea, we will revisit the question.”
Travis couldn’t believe how fast things were going. He looked at Boyd Rawlings, who was grinning, and then at Judge Rawlings, who had a bit of a smirk on his face. Travis didn’t know that the judge was aware and approved of what the Sheriff was doing.
Judge Rawlings held a grudge for a long time. Travis’ parents had openly and loudly opposed Rawlings each time he ran in an election for the judgeship. They would bring to light some shady business dealings and moral issues. They never quite stopped Rawlings from being elected, but their efforts stopped his advance in the State legal system. Rawlings was relegated to being a small-town and county judge, a small fish in an even smaller pond. The parents were long-dead but Travis would do for the judge’s revenge.
“Not guilty Judge,” Travis proclaimed. “I didn’t kill Dawson, and Boyd knows it. He said...”
“We’ll get into all that during the trial, young man.” Turning to Boyd he said, “Take him back to his cell and make sure he gets his phone call.”
Back in cell area, the Deputy Sheriff, Jasper, sat Travis down at a table with a phone and a phone book. Travis looked through the book and found only two attorneys in the area. One was the County Prosecuting Attorney, the other one was Sam Chilton, so he called Chilton. The lawyer agreed to meet with Travis the first thing the next morning.
Chilton was sitting in a sort of conference room the next morning when Travis was led into the room in handcuffs and ankle shackles. He was cuffed to a round bar welded into the stationary table. After Travis was situated, Chilton looked at him.
“Mr. Benson, I should not have agreed to meet with you. I’m involved in several other legal actions and would not have the time to properly represent you in a murder trial.” Chilton stood up, gathered his brief case and spoke. “I hope you do okay with your trial. Good bye, Mr. Benson.” He turned and left the conference room.
‘What the hell?’ Travis thought, shaking his head. ‘He was ready to defend me yesterday.’ Boyd came in to take him back to his cell. “I need to call a lawyer in Poplar Bluff,” Travis said. “Can you get me a phone book for there?”
“Couldn’t find an attorney here and thought you’d try the big city, did ya?” Boyd said. Poplar Bluff was about 60 miles east and a little south of Van Buren, with a population of just over 17,000. He grabbed Travis’ arm. “You had the one phone call you’re allowed. Let’s get you back to your cell. Don’t worry, you ain’t gonna be there long.”
As Boyd pushed his prisoner back into the cell, he leaned in and whispered, “I told you I’m gonna watch you hang.” The Sheriff locked the cell door and left.
The next time Travis was taken out of his cell was for his appearance in court. Boyd escorted him down the hallway to the courtroom. Travis shuffled along; he was handcuffed with shackles on his feet, and he could only take very small steps. Just before opening the door Boyd moved closer to Travis and whispered, “If you mention anything about Emmy, I’ll kill her. Do you understand? I’ll take her over behind Misty Mountain, put a bullet in her head, bury her, and not lose a minute’s sleep about it.” Boyd moved away and added, “I’m as serious as a heart attack, Travis.”
Boyd sat him down at a table in front of the judge’s bench and took off the handcuffs but the leg shackles stayed on and he stood close to Travis. Judge Rawlings straightened a few papers and then banged his gavel.
“Carter County, state of Missouri vs. Travis Benson on the charge of murder in the first degree is called to order.” Turning to Charles Barnes, the county attorney and prosecutor, Rawlings asked, “Are you ready to proceed Mr. Barnes?”
“Yes, your honor,” Barnes answered as he stood up.
“Do you have Counsel Mr. Benson?” The judge asked.
“No sir. The only other lawyer in town said he wouldn’t take my case. I wanted to call a lawyer in Poplar Bluff but Boyd wouldn’t let me. Said I’d already had my phone call.”
“So, you’ll be defending yourself, then,” the judge said. Looking back at Barnes he ordered, “Make your opening statement, Charley.”
“Sure thing, Randy.” He turned to the six people chosen for the jury and started to speak.
“I object, Judge,” Travis said and tried to stand up. Boyd pushed him back down.
“What is your objection, Mr. Benson?”
“I don’t know much about the law, but I do know I have the right to help choose the jury. It was only day before yesterday that I was arrested, and I’ve never met these people and...”
“Objection overruled. Continue, Charley.”
Travis shook off Boyd’s hand and stood up. “Your Honor, y’all are denying me my rights and this ain’t what they call due process. I want...”
“Sit down, Mr. Benson. Sheriff,” he instructed, and Boyd pushed Travis back down in the chair. “I’ll decide what due process in my court is. If you continue with these interruptions, I will have you muzzled.”
For the first time Travis knew and understood that he was going to die. ‘Damn sure I’m not gonna get a fair trial in this county,’ Travis thought. ‘Blood is thicker than the truth; the Judge is Boyd’s cousin and he’s gonna help Boyd kill me. Don’t help none that my parents always worked against him at election time. He’s gonna find me guilty and let Boyd hang me. Don’t matter much what I say.’
Barnes stood before the jury of five men and one woman. His opening statement was brief. “Lady,” he nodded toward the large florid faced woman, “and gentlemen. The state will prove that that man,” he pointed at Travis, “shot and killed one James Dawson, with malice aforethought.”
The attorney put his hand inside his coat, took hold of his vest and took a stance as if he were a modern day Clarence Darrow. “The defendant had a run in with Dawson two weeks previously, concerning a hog that Dawson supposedly stole from the Benson farm. The murder of James Dawson was the defendant’s answer to that confrontation.”
Barnes paused to let his words take effect and then continued, “The State has witnesses that saw Mr. Benson shoot Mr. Dawson and run from the scene of the murder. We will prove that the defendant had the motive, means, and opportunity to commit this heinous crime. We will be asking for the death penalty.” Barnes sat down.
“Mr. Benson, you may give your opening statement now,” Judge Rawlings said.
Travis stood in front of the jury, just as Barnes had done. “I didn’t kill Dawson and I was at home when they said it happened. Yeah, I didn’t like him and he did steal a hog from the farm, but when I braced him about it, he offered to give it back or pay for it. I took the money and that was the end of it. Boyd, er Sheriff Rawlings, is tryin to railroad me.” He paused and then said, “Guess that’s about it.” He sat down.
“Charley, how long is your side gonna take? I’ve got a meeting at two,” Judge Rawlings said.
“Not long, Judge. Got two eye witnesses and a piece of evidence to submit, and that’s about it.”
“Present your evidence and testimony, Charley.”
Barnes took a sealed evidence bag out of his brief case and turned to the court. “Mr. Dawson was shot and killed with a .357 pistol; this pistol. It has been recently fired and from the empty shells in the cylinder it was fired twice; the same number of times that the victim was shot. This gun belongs to the defendant, Travis Benson.” He handed the pistol to Judge Rawlings and said, “I ask that this pistol be marked as prosecution’s exhibit one.”
“Any objections Mr. Benson?”
“It’s my gun, but Boyd took it from my bedroom and fired it twice when he got outside. That don’t prove that it killed Dawson.”
“Objection overruled. Call your first witness, Charley.”
“The state calls Jacob Sterling to the stand,” Barnes said in a loud voice.
A man sitting in the courtroom stood and made his way to the stand. He was sworn in and took his seat in the witness chair. Sterling was dressed in a white, short-sleeved shirt and bib overalls. His only concession to being in court was a very loud, very wide tie. It hung over the “bib” of the overalls and had to be from two or three decades previously; it also had food stains on it. Sterling had the “shakes” that accompanied withdrawal from a drug; in this case, alcohol.
Sterling hung out at the Big Spring Bar and Grill across the street from the town hall, and he was seldom sober. He would cage drinks from anyone who would listen to him. Sterling was surprised to see Travis in court. When Boyd Rawlings gave him the money to testify, he was told he would not have to see the man he was accusing of murder.
“Mr. Sterling, you were in the Big Spring Bar and Grill on the night in question, is that right?” Sterling’s yes answer led to the next question. “And what, if anything, unusual did you see?”
Sterling had several beads of sweat on his forehead, and his hands trembled where he had them clasped on the edge of the witness box. Travis could see that he was coming down from his constant drunken state and was hurting.
“I seen a man shoot that Dawson feller. Then he stood over him and shot him again.”
“And what time did this take place?”
“Was about 10PM. I remember ‘cause I just got my last beer of the night and was gonna head home after I drank it.”
“Did you recognize the man that did the shooting?”
“Yes sir, it were him.” Sterling pointed toward Travis sitting behind the defendant’s table.
Travis jumped to his feet and yelled, “That’s a lie. I was at home and this old drunk can’t see more than ten feet when he’s been drinking. And he drinks every night until the bar closes.”
“Sit down, Mr. Benson,” the judge said. “You will get you chance to cross-examine the witness.”
“It was dark that time of night,” Barnes said. “How can you be so sure it was Mr. Benson?”
“The shootin’ was under that new town hall light. Then the killer ran but when he did his hat fell off. That’s when I knew it was him that done the shootin,” Sterling pointed at Travis again.
“No further questions, Your Honor,” Barnes said.
“Your witness, Mr. Benson.” When Travis looked puzzled, the judge added, “You may cross-examine the witness.”
Travis stood, looked at the witness and didn’t say anything for about 30 seconds. Sterling fidgeted in his seat and looked anywhere but at Travis. “You’re a liar. By 10, you’re totally wasted and can barely see to walk. You couldn’t have seen me.”
“Objection Your Honor,” Barnes said. “Mr. Benson is badgering the witness. Is there a question from the defendant somewhere in there?”
“Ask a question, Mr. Benson, or I’ll excuse the witness.”
“What’s the use?” Travis said and sat down.
As Sterling left the stand, the judge told Barnes to call his next witness. “The State calls Steven Chilton.”
The only reason that Steven Chilton didn’t hold the title of “town drunk” was that dubious honor belonged to Jacob Sterling, but if the small town had been big enough for a second town drunk, it would have been Chilton. He had at least made an effort to clean up for court. Chilton wore a clean, if wrinkled, pair of slacks and a blue button down shirt, but he didn’t wear a tie. He, too, was suffering from the effects of coming down from a year’s long drunk.
Chilton was sweating as if he’d been working in the hot sun; his shirt was hanging on him and was wet in several places. His hands had a decided tremor and couldn’t seem to stay still; he even staggered getting to the witness stand. Once there, he was all shakes and shudders and couldn’t seem to sit still.
Barnes stood and began questioning his witness. “The reason you are here, Mr. Chilton, is because of what you told Sheriff Rawlings about what you saw on the night in question. What did you see?”
Chilton wiped his hand over his face and sat up straighter. He too was nervous at seeing Travis in the courtroom. “I seen Travis there, shoot Jimmy Dawson twice and then run away.”
“And there’s no doubt in your mind that it was Travis Benson who shot Mr. Dawson?” Barnes asked.
“No, it were him alright. His hat fell off when he run; that’s how I knowed it was him.”
“No more questions Your Honor,” Barnes said and sat back down.
“Your witness, Mr. Benson,” Judge Rawlings said. There was a bit of a smirk on his face and in his tone.
“Where were you when you saw me supposedly kill Dawson?” Travis didn’t bother to get up.
“I was in my car parked on the north side of the town hall square.”
“Why were you parked there at that time of night?”
“I stopped to have a drink fore goin’ home.” Chilton gave a small smile as he turned toward the jury. “The wife don’t like me to drink at home.”
“You do that a lot don’t you, Chilton?” Chilton looked puzzled and didn’t answer. “I heard that every night you park there with never less than a twelve pack of beer and a bottle of whiskey.” Chilton looked even more nervous and didn’t answer. Travis gave Chilton a disgusted look and said, “I got no more use for this drunk.”
“Objection, Judge,” Barnes said in a loud voice as he stood up.
“Sustained. Mr. Benson, you will refrain from insulting the witness.”
“It can’t be an insult if it’s the truth,’ Travis replied. “This man shouldn’t be allowed to walk, much less drive. Same goes for Sterling.” Travis’ tone was angry. “If this wasn’t a kangaroo court, I wouldn’t have to do that.”
Judge Rawlings sort of swelled up and said, “Mr. Benson, any more of that kind of talk and I’ll hold you in contempt.”
“You’re right there, Judge. I got nothin but contempt for this trial. Sides, what are you gonna do to me? Put me in jail?” Travis slid down in the chair until his neck was on the back and his legs were stretched out under the table. “Do your damndest,” he said to the judge.
Judge Rawlings stared at Travis for over a minute. He was obviously angry at Travis’ outburst. Finally, he asked, “Any more on your side Charley? Barnes shook his head. “Then you can give your closing statement.”
Barnes stood and stepped in front of the jury box. “Lady and gentlemen, the State has given evidence and proved that all of the factors necessary for this crime exist. Benson had the motivation; Dawson stole a hog from him. The defendant had the means; a .357 revolver, the same caliber weapon that killed Dawson, that the lab said had been fired recently. And he had the opportunity; he did the shooting late at night in a way he thought wouldn’t be seen. He was wrong because the new night-light at the town hall allowed our two witnesses to see him. I ask for a finding of guilty Thank you.” He nodded at the Judge and sat down.
Judge Rawlings looked at Travis. “Your turn for your closing argument.”
This time Travis stood and faced the jury. “Y’all know this is a set up. Those two witnesses haven’t had a sober day in the last five years. Even if they could see past their drunk, they didn’t see me. I was at home when Dawson was killed.” Travis sat back down.
“The jury will retire, consider the evidence and bring back a verdict,” the judge ordered.
The jury filed out. Travis watched them go. ‘Every one of those jurors was handpicked by Boyd and the Judge. Won’t be much of a surprise at the verdict,’ Travis thought. He was taken back to his cell, brought a bologna sandwich and weak coffee for lunch, and then was left alone until supper. Supper was another bologna sandwich but this time it had a slice of cheese and mustard on it, but the coffee was from that morning. ‘Damn, I’m eatin high or the hog tonight.’
At 8:00 the next morning Travis was taken to the locker-room that the Sheriff and his deputy used. He was given a bar of soap, a disposable razor, a comb and a towel. The deputy watched him the whole time as he bathed and shaved.
“Y’all worried I’m gonna cut my throat or slice my wrists with this cheap-ass razor, Deputy?” Travis asked.
“Get done and get dressed. You’re gonna see the Judge this morning.”
Travis was handcuffed with both wrist and ankle shackles, again, and led into the courtroom. Judge Rawlings sort of frowned at him and pointed to the defendant’s table. The jury was seated in the jury box, and some looked nervous.
“Do you have any evidence or witnesses to bring forth, Mr. Benson, before we hear the verdict?” The judge asked.
“What good would it do? Y’all gonna find me guilty when I’m not. Guess Boyd and you got it all figured out.”
“Very well,” Judge Rawlings replied. He turned toward the jury box. “Mr. Foreman, do you have a verdict? If so, stand and read it to the court.”
A man stood, it was Curtis Mayfield, the owner of the only grocery store in town. Judge Rawlings was a not so silent partner in the store. Holding up a piece of legal size paper he read, “In the case of the State vs. Travis Benson on the charge of 1st degree murder, we the jury find the defendant...” Mayfield paused and gulped before he continued. “We find him guilty of the charge.” He sat down quickly and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Thank you, lady and gentlemen of the jury,” Rawlings said. “You are excused and may leave the courtroom. Will the defendant please rise?” Travis looked at the judge, flipped him the bird, knowing anything he said would be useless, and remained seated.
“Very well, Mr. Benson. You have been found guilty of murder in the first degree by a jury of your peers. I sentence you to hang to pay for your crime. The sentence will be carried out after the State’s Attorney or one of his assistants comes here and reviews the case.” Now Judge Rawlings gave Travis an evil grin. “Don’t worry boy, it won’t be more than a week.”
Travis was taken back to his cell and the restraints were removed. This time for lunch the deputy brought him a large cheeseburger, fries and a soda. ‘Guess the condemned man gets better food, ‘ he thought. As he was eating, he thought about the State’s Attorney coming to review the trail. ‘Maybe I’ll get to talk to him and tell him the truth.’
About 10 PM Travis had a visitor; it was Emmy. She had been beaten. Her left eye was swollen almost shut, her bottom lip was split and there were bruises on both of her arms.
“What happened, Emmy?” Travis asked.
“Boyd did it. Said he wanted you to see part of what would happen to me if you say we were together that night. Oh, Travis, he said he’d kill me.” Emmy had tears running down her face when she added, “And Judge Rawlings told me if anything happened to Boyd that he’d take care of me. And I believe him. They’ll kill me such as anything, and bury me somewhere. But how can I keep quite?”
Travis reached through the bars of his cell and pulled Emmy as close as possible. He put his head against hers through the bars and ran his hands up and down her back as she cried. Swallowing hard, he stood back but continued to hold her hands.
“Don’t worry, Emmy. When that State’s Attorney gets here and reviews the trial there’s no way he’ll let Boyd and the Judge hang me. I won’t have to say nothing to him about us.” Emmy looked at Travis with hope. “Your name will never come into it, trust me. I’ll always take care of and protect you.”
“Well, I see the love birds are saying goodbye,” Boyd said as he came into the cell area. He came over and pulled Emmy into his arms. “Before they hang you Travis, I want you to think about who is going to be sleeping and living with your little playmate. Just so we’re clear, if you use her as an alibi, I’ll kill her.” He pulled Emmy out of the cell ward and into the office.
Travis lay on his bunk all night, wondering if he was going to get through this trouble or would he hung like Boyd promised. Sometime just before dawn he finally fell into a troubled sleep. His last thought was, ‘I’ll just have to hope the review of the case will at least get me another trial. Best I can hope for.’
The guilty verdict for Travis Benson was pronounced on a Thursday. The Assistant State’s Attorney, Robert Colwell, came on the following Monday to review the case. Using a small conference room, he took the next day to read the transcript, interview Judge Rawlings and Sheriff Boyd Rawlings, and even had the two witnesses come in to talk to him. After his review, he found that in his opinion, everything was on the up and up, if a little unorthodox. He went to the judge’s chambers.
“When will you have the sentencing hearing, Judge Rawlings?” Colwell asked.
“We’ll have the hearing tomorrow and carry out the sentence on Saturday. Got to have time to set up the gallows.”
“I’d like to talk to Mr. Benson, if I may,” Colwell requested.
“That’s a little unorthodox isn’t it, young man?”
“Maybe so, but it is legal. I want to talk to Benson before you carry out the sentence.” Colwell was sure Benson was going to be executed; the whole trial pointed to it.
Rawlings stared at the attorney for almost a minute, trying to intimidate him. He saw a young man who was sure of himself and wouldn’t let himself be swayed. “Very well, Mr. Colwell. You can have time with the defendant after sentence is passed.”
Travis was led into the courtroom on Wednesday morning. This time, Boyd held onto his shirt and the back of his neck to make sure he remained standing as the judge walked to his seat behind the bench.
“Do you have anything to say, Mr. Benson, before I pass sentence?”
Knowing it wouldn’t make any difference, Travis still had to try and get through to the jury, people in the court room and the State’s Attorney.
“I didn’t kill Dawson. Like I said before, he stole a hog from me but then he made it good, so we were quits. Boyd and the Judge have it in for me. The witnesses are a couple of drunks and I’m sure Boyd forced them to testify. They chose the jurors and didn’t let me get my say. Don’t let them kill me; I’m innocent.” He jerked away from Boyd but remained standing. Travis was going to face his fate on his feet.
“Mr. Benson, you have been found guilty of the murder of James Dawson. You are sentenced to be hung by the neck until you are dead on Saturday next. May God have mercy on your soul. Sheriff, return the prisoner to his cell.”
Travis was on his bunk leaning on the wall on Thursday evening when Colwell was allowed to see him. “Sheriff, I’d like to talk to Mr. Benson face to face. Please bring him out of the cell.”
“I know you some high uppity up from the State Capitol, but Benson is a convicted murderer and my prisoner. He ain’t coming out of that cell ‘cept in shackles. And you ain’t gonna be alone with him if he leaves that cell.”
“Very well, open the door and I’ll go into the cell and you can lock the door behind me.”
“I told you, he is a murderer.”
Colwell stepped in front of the sheriff and stared at him. “If he kills me, then you can hang him twice. Now, open the door.”
Boyd wasn’t used to people confronting him, but opened the cell door. After Colwell entered, Boyd locked the door and stood outside watching Colwell and Travis. Colwell waved him away, and Boyd left the cell area.
“My name is Robert Colwell, Mr. Benson,” he said, and shook hands with Travis. “I’m the Assistant State’s Attorney and I have reviewed the trial.” Travis nodded and just looked at the attorney. “Is there anything you want to say about the trial and the way it was conducted?”
“Mr. Colwell, is it? Like I said before, I didn’t kill Dawson. I was home when the shooting took place.” Travis sort of laughed. “This whole thing is a set-up.”
“How so, Mr. Benson?”
“There are only two lawyers in town and one is the Prosecutor, so I called the other one. At first, he said he’d take my case. The next day he said he had too much goin on to help me. I think Boyd, er Sheriff Rawlings, or the judge got to him and called him off. They wouldn’t let me call a lawyer in Poplar Bluff; said I’d already had my phone call.”
Travis paced a little and continued. “I didn’t get to see the jury until the trial started. Ain’t I supposed to meet them before? The two witnesses are drunks, and at the trial is the first time they’ve been sober in years.”
“The brief of the trial said you didn’t want to question the jurors and refused legal counsel.”
“Not a damn word of truth to that. The Rawlings’ are railroading me.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I done something that Boyd didn’t like, and my folks strongly opposed the Judge in every election. Between Boyd and the Judge, they’re gonna hang me.”
“What could you have done that would make the Sheriff want to execute you?”
Travis shook his head and finally said, “I can’t tell you that, Mr. Colwell. If I do, someone I care about will be hurt.”
Colwell tried to get Travis to explain, but the young man refused to say any more. “If you don’t tell me more I can’t stop this Mr. Benson. For your sake you better tell me what’s going on.”
“Can’t, I just can’t.” Travis had a hang-dog expression and his voice sounded defeated.
Colwell waited for a few minutes, hoping Travis would change his mind. When he didn’t, Colwell called for the Sheriff and left the cell.
Boyd waited until the attorney cleared the cell area and looked in at Travis. “That’s good, Travis, remember what will happen if you say anything.” He turned and left the area.
The gallows had been erected in the city square behind the courthouse. It was 10 feet tall, with a square platform 12 x 10 feet. Two opposing sides had a thick beam running vertically above the platform with a strong cross beam joining them at their tops. There was a trap door in the center of the platform, and a lever on one side that would spring the trap door.
Colwell stayed in town until the day of the hanging. He watched Judge Rawlings lead the way up the stairs of the gallows, followed by Travis, with his hands cuffed behind him. The Deputy crowded the prisoner up the stairs and positioned him under the noose hanging down from the cross beam. He put the noose around Travis’ neck and stepped over to the release lever and put his hand on it. Judge Rawlings stood to one side of the platform.
The State’s Attorney stepped closer to the gallows and looked up at Travis. “Travis, what’s your alibi? If you were somewhere else or have someone to verify your claim of being at your home, you don’t have to die,” he said in an almost pleading voice. Travis shook his head and looked around at the few people who had come to watch.
Emmy was standing in the back of the crowd, and Boyd was next to her with his hand on her shoulder. Boyd tightened his grip when he saw Travis looking at her and smirked. Emmy had tears running down her face as she stared at Travis. He smiled at her and mouthed “I love you”.
“Do you have any last words, Travis Benson, before we carry out your sentence?” Judge Rawlings asked. He had a bit of a smirk on his face as well.
“I didn’t kill Dawson and you damn well know it. This is a frame up.” Travis looked back over the crowd and said, “I’ll be seeing you, Boyd.” He turned and added “You too, Judge.”
The Judge frowned and then grinned. “You’ll be dead in a couple of minute’s boy.”
“Never the less, I’ll be seeing both of you. I’m done talking; Do your worst.” Judge Rawlings motioned to the Deputy who pulled the lever. The trap door opened and Travis fell through, snapping his neck when the rope pulled him up short.
Travis felt the trap door open, felt the fall and the felt the noose tighten around his neck. Then he was swinging back and forth. ‘What’s this? That didn’t hurt at all. I can still see and hear what is going on. How’s Emmy’?
Boyd held Emmy up as she screamed and almost fell. “Reckon that’s done,” Boyd said. He pulled Emmy forcibly along to his patrol car and left the courthouse square.
Late that night, Emmy was at her parents’ home, on her bed crying. She kept playing over in her mind Travis smiling at her and telling her he loved her. Then she would see the trap door open and Travis fall with the rope around his neck. Every time she thought of Travis swinging under the gallows she would start to cry again. The tension and stress of the day finally got to her and she dropped off to sleep.
Shortly afterward, a blue shimmering light appeared beside the bed. Its intensity ebbed and flowed from dim to very bright. In a few seconds a figure could be seen in the light. As the light intensified, the figure solidified and stepped out of the light.
The figure reached out and touched Emmy on the shoulder. She slowly woke up and looked around for a second and then saw the figure. “Travis,” she said. Her tone was somewhere between scared and awe. “You can’t be here. You’re dead. I saw you hang.” She had gotten over her fear and was sitting up in bed. “I must be dreaming.”