Drew Neuenschwander is a 2013 graduate of the PWR program. “One-Gun Salute” was published in the 2013 edition of Parnassus
Before the end of the night the storm would blow over, freedom would reign and first light, at long last, would come.
Already, the first crimson embers of dawn glowed in the eastern sky, but much would happen before the sun showed its flaming face.
The storm was approaching. Coal-black thunderclouds brewed above the fallen, smoldering timbers of John Willard’s former house.
At the edge of the burnt ruins stood a bloodhound and a tall, stone-faced man, Major Simon Willard: veteran militia man of Concord, faithful widower of the long-deceased Mary Willard, and grief-stricken father of one late son: John.
The previous evening, Salem Village’s judge and jury had convicted John and handed him over to the townspeople.
The mob had lynched him and torched his house by cover of night. Their eyes, weakened by the darkness, had been easily stirred to zeal by the torchlight blaze of a “holy and lawful” cause. The conviction had been based on the testimony of a vengeful, unstable drunk whom John had jailed. The man had claimed that he could see demons dancing in John’s eyes, and a group of superstitious women had emphatically agreed. That, alone, had satisfied the jury.
The damage was done, yet Willard prayed, even now, for the dawn. Perhaps when God arose and shone His first pure rays of discernment through the dissipating smoke, the people of Salem Village would recognize their sins. These charred remnants and artifacts of John’s shattered life would surely testify against them.
Stranded amidst seeping smoke and memories, Willard could feel the storm’s approach, treading heavily upon his heart. He stepped onto a crude rocky slab that had once been a front stoop.
Six years ago on this threshold Simon had shaken his son’s hand, looking proudly into the eye of the newly-appointed assistant constable of Salem.
Wiping the memory aside, he let out a heavy breath and trudged into the ruins; each heavy step was shrewdly and steadily placed. Despite his years, Willard’s frame was strong, broad-shouldered and only slightly stooped.
Suddenly, the major heard a whimper; at the same time, he felt the rope in his hand tug backward. He glared over his shoulder at the mutt, Russ, who was pulling away fiercely.
At a single, angry word from the major, however, the dog tucked its tail and fell in reluctantly behind him.
Even the dog seemed to sense evil’s presence, though it was an unfamiliar visitor to this house.
Simon had reared John here. His wife died when John was an infant, yet the child’s innocence and cheer had gradually cleansed the major’s despair and taught him to hope.
Now, however, the milestones of Willard’s past joys were all changed into horrible, black gravestones.
As the major looked around, discerning where each room had stood, the memories washed over him; difficult memories . . . of when Little Johnny took his first steps and a lot more steps afterward . . . following his father around the barnyard . . . and helping to stack firewood every evening.
Haunting memories . . . of when the kid grew into a medium-sized Johnny . . . and strutted around proudly with that first coon tail pinned to his shirt . . . He told his daddy that he wanted a baby sister, then skipped away . . . before he could see his father’s tears.
Infuriating memories . . . of the young man who changed his name to Big John … and went to work for the miller, toiling hard all day long … and coming home exhausted every night. He was his mother’s dream . . . and he made his father look like a foolish sinner.
Vile, excruciating memories . . . of a respectable, young gentleman: Mr. John Willard . . . who enlisted with law enforcement . . . fell in love . . . and made his father a right-proud man . . . ardently anticipating his days as a grandfather.
But now all of Willard’s hopes were dashed; his line was at an end.
In anger, the aged man bellowed a curse and crushed down a seared crossbeam with the heel of his boot.
Russ, who’d been snuffling tentatively among the ashes, jerked his head up in alarm at the crack.
Willard turned away, still trembling with rage. The major’s greatcoat enshrouded him, its long tails snapping back at Russ like serpents. The dog cowered.
Kneading his pocked chin against the handle of his cane, Willard gazed down at a charred mantelpiece on the ground. Upon that mantel, a Bible, a Bible, had always rested.
And where had John’s witch books been all along? The pagan talismans? The dark parchments of rites and rituals?
Slowly, Simon squinted his eyes shut, feeling the sorrow and rage simmering up within.
Thunder roared in the distance.
John had been a good, Christian man, a deputy constable no less. Yet, at the fall of a judge’s gavel, this great pillar of his community had been struck down.
The investigation had been conducted, the warrant issued, the arrest made, the trial held and the hanging carried out – apparently fitting repayment for John’s years of faithful service.
Justice had been served; so said the judge.
Satan no longer dwelt here; so said the chaplain.
The public was again secure; so said the constable.
And it was all a filthy shame; so said the boy’s bloody father!
The events of the past night had seared a terrible flaw in the pure pearl of divine justice, torn a mortal fray in the Union Jack.
Thunder grumbled overhead – like threats of a vengeful god. The same raven-black darkness that had skewed the mob’s vision was now rolling in; while clouds would bring blindness, lightning would provide the impulsive spark. The same elements that had claimed the major’s son were rolling in to reap another life.
Turning back, Willard saw Russ standing over John’s splintered bookshelf, one leg lifted nervously.
Willard’s foot crushed against Russ’s side; yelping, the dog was thrown aside. Stupid mutt!
Lightning spit, split, spat and splintered in all directions. The storm was very near.
Never in his life had Willard felt so overwhelmed by injustice.
Feeling a soldier’s instinct course through him, he balled his fist and rested the heel of his hand on his saber hilt. This town owed a great debt to justice. Blood was owed for the wrong against his son, and only blood would satisfy his lust for vengeance.
But by now, the storm had reached the major’s heart, and he realized that he would most certainly die hungry, unsatisfied. Age had overturned his proficiencies, and his once zealous heart was now weary, encumbered with unspeakable scars.
The town would be spared for now . . . and left to God.
Willard had heard that the Mohegans of the South were regrouping to mount the greatest Indian offensive since King Philip’s War. This time, Willard certainly would not guard the colony’s door. Thus, perhaps the people would receive just retribution after all, but the major doubted he would live to see it dealt.
Rain pelted down upon the blackened refuse. Bitterly, the old man forged ahead through the onslaught, Russ trailing along with great resistance.
The wind shifted, throwing a wet, icy wall back into the major’s face and stopping him in mid-stride. The storm halted Willard, as nothing ever had.
He stood in the wind, droplets clinging to raw, chapped flesh.
The rain soaked into the chiseled trenches of his forehead.
It slid and tumbled down high, craggy cheekbones.
It dripped from his blunt, crooked nose.
Yet still, the major stood.
Suddenly, a piteous whine sounded at the major’s feet. Oddly oblivious to his master’s grief, Russ sat awkwardly on his haunches, a long soggy tongue lolling from one side of his mouth.
Instantly, the sight of the lazy, mangy animal sent Willard’s hand to his coat pocket – where a matchlock pistol was tucked.
Eying the dog, he pulled out the weapon and turned it over in his hands, the answer becoming clear. Around him, the rain began to ebb. The storm was passing, yet, within Willard, it still raged strong.
The major stooped.
He reached down a gloved hand, and stroked the mutt’s bony head.
Grasping the rope around Russ’ head, he loosened it with a jerk, releasing the animal.
A clash of thunder. A surge of joy!
Without a moment’s hesitation, Russ bolted away in a carefree lope, drinking in freedom for the first time, a freedom that Willard would never know.
The major’s jaw kinked into a peculiar smile as he raised the matchlock.
Raindrops ceased to fall altogether, encapsulating the moment in surreal silence.
This old dog would no longer serve his master, and now, the major would end its pathetic existence.
Dashing from the obliterated shell of the house with his heart light and his eyes wide to the beckoning wilderness, Russ streaked for the timberline.
Willard’s long, gloved index finger found the feather-sensitive trigger.
Cold steel came to rest against the leathery flesh of the major’s temple – just as the smooth round of a hopeful orange sun bobbed above the horizon, overlooking a clear morning sky.
The stabbing crack of a gunshot resounded through the valley.
The dog didn’t look back.
Photography by Adrian Platt [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons