Word Count: 1100
Strong arms gripped Adam tightly and held him firmly in place despite his struggle to get away. He’d finally accepted that he was trapped, but that didn’t mean he had to cooperate.
“Say it,” growled a menacing voice.
Adam squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head. Large, strong fingers grasped his chin to pull it back and hold him in place. He was roughly shaken to force him to open his eyes, but he refused.
“Tell my father you’re sorry,” a younger voice snarled.
The pressure on his arms increased and he was shaken again. He would admit nothing.
A deep voice boomed out, “It’s your arrogance that caused this.”
Adam’s eyes suddenly flew open and he ceased his struggles. They widened in horror at the sight of the man standing behind the tombstone, a hangman’s noose fastened around his neck, the trailing end of the rope held in his hand.
“I . . .I . . .no,” was all Adam could stammer out. He tried to break free of his captors but his struggle was futile.
The dead man’s hand reached forward, offering Adam the end of the rope. “Take it. You were my executioner.”
Adam began to tremble, and if it wasn’t for the hands holding him upright, he would’ve been on his knees begging for mercy. The dead man’s eyes pierced his soul with a baleful glare.
“I . . . I . . . I had to do it,” Adam finally said. As soon as the words were spoken, he wished he could take them back.
“There was another way,” the dead man said as he removed the noose from his neck.
Adam squeezed his eyes shut against the corpse’s glower. He could hear soft footsteps on the fresh dirt covering the grave. A cold hand was briefly laid against his cheek before he felt the sharp sting of a slap.
“Look at me!”
“No!” Adam whispered.
Another slap, harder than the first, and again the command to look at his accuser.
“You should have listened to their pleas,” the voice said menacingly.
Adam felt bile rising in his throat from the dead man’s sickly stench. He wouldn’t be blamed for this. None of this was his fault. “There was . . . no other . . . way,” Adam sobbed out.
“Tell that to my sons,” the voice boomed.
Adam felt the ground tremble beneath his feet but refused to open his eyes. He wanted to cover his ears to shut out the echoing accusation but he couldn’t break free of his captors.
“Look at me,” the voice commanded. “Look. At. Me.”
One eye cracked open and Adam tried to hold back a whimper. Even though his mouth opened to plead for mercy, forgiveness, redemption, no sound would come forth.
The dead man placed the noose around Adam’s neck and slowly tightened the knot to hold it in place. “You deserve to be there,” the corpse said, pointing at the grave.
“No,” Adam whispered as he shook his head. Tears welled in his eyes and his lips quivered. He choked down a sob. Adam dropped to his knees as he was released by his captors. He tightly clasped his hands together as hot tears flowed down his cheeks. “There was no other way!”
“If you’d set the Farmer free, Bryant would have let me go. You believed you were smarter than Bryant. You . . . were . . .wrong!” Ben Cartwright poked his eldest son in the chest to emphasize each word. “I paid the price for your precious principles.”
Adam drew in a ragged breath and said, “No.”
“That stone should have your name on it, not mine.”
The name on the headstone blurred and was slowly replaced with Adam’s first name only. An epitaph slowly appeared, each letter accompanied by the sound of a hammer striking a chisel. When completed, it read, Unworthy of the name Cartwright.
Strong hands pulled Adam to his feet as Ben tossed the end of the rope over a tree limb. Hoss and Joe tried to pull their brother’s hands apart so they could tie them behind his back; his palms began to throb from the pressure. He shook his head and said, “No.”
“Save yourself. Admit you were wrong.”
“Your pride is greater than your love for me,” said Ben.
“That’s not true!”
“Tell my father you’re sorry,” Joe hissed in his brother’s ear.
Adam felt the rope tighten around his neck and was stunned to see Hoss pulling on it. The weight of his body was transferred to the balls of his feet. He opened his mouth to tell his brother to stop, but the rope made it hard to speak above a whisper.
Hoss pulled on the rope again and Adam was balancing on the tips of his boots. It was as if Adam was trapped in Justice’s scales and the balance could suddenly shift in either direction, resulting in life or death.
“No! It’s the only way!” Adam managed to squeak out with the remnants of his last breath as his feet lost contact with the ground. High-pitched laughter echoed in his ears.
Adam jolted awake in the small room where the cells were located. He looked down at his hands; the knuckles were white and the blue veins on the backs of his hands stood out in stark contrast to his pale, clammy skin. Sharp pain caused him to slowly open his hands, which revealed thin, red half-crescents caused by the nails digging into the palms.
“Dreamin’ about ol’ Sam hanging your Pa?” Farmer Perkins asked before breaking into another cackle.
Beth Cameron’s words came to mind as Adam rubbed his face to dispel the remaining fragments of the dream: I know what it’s like to lose someone. Do you? And to know that you’re the cause of it?
In a few short minutes, Adam would know if his adherence to his principles would result in his father’s death. Hoss and Joe had already made it clear that if Bryant hanged Pa, the blame would lie squarely on his own shoulders. Carrying out Perkins’ sentence had been his choice even before the sheriff was wounded by one of Bryant’s men. He was gambling everything on carrying out the sentence ordered by the judge for Mr. Cameron’s killer.
“Adam? It’s a quarter of five,” said Hoss as he entered the cell room. “You still going through with this?”
“Yeah,” was Adam’s reply after checking his watch to confirm the time?