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THE STRANGER

I'm almost sure it was my idea. I was twelve at the time, andTom was almost a year older, but I was always the leader.Anyhow, the two of us were in front of the general storeshagging some Confederate coins Tom's older brother had broughtback after the war, when The Stranger rode up in his trap anddropped the reins over the horse rail.

His name was Spencer, but if you said anything around town about"The Stranger" everyone understood you were talking about JohnSpencer. Now, I know small towns have the reputation for beingunfriendly, for taking years before really accepting a newcomer,but The Stranger kind of made the townspeople even morestandoffish than they otherwise might have been.

About the only time he came into town was Monday mornings to buyhis week's groceries, and he never said much more than what wasneeded to buy what he wanted and then get back home. Every sooften he rode through town and disappeared for two or threedays, which made him seem even more mysterious. But nobody everasked him where he was going or where he'd been.

That's the other side of living in a small town. It doesn'tmean folks won't gossip — because they sure do — but peopledon'tinterfere in other people's business. "If what you're doingdon't bother me, then I won't bother you." It could've been amotto hanging over our town hall, if we'd a had a town hall backthen. Tom and I stopped tossing coins as we watched The Strangergoing up the steps to the store. He did look different fromother folks, but it was hard to say exactly what the differencewas. I think his hat brim was narrower. It looked more like ithad come from some New England or New York store. And hisclothes generally seemed to be tighter fitting. Mom said hejust dressed more "up-to-date," more like the town lawyer thanlike any of the farmers.

"I'll bet he's a Reb," Tom said mostly in a whisper, whichwasn't necessary, because The Stranger had already disappearedinto the store.

"Nah," I said. Being a Reb in our part of the country wasn'tfar out of place, even when the war was going on. Pa used tosay the surrounding area was alive with Copperheads. I'd evenheard there was a family of Democrats living over in Oakville.But with the war three years over, we could've had a regiment ofex-rebels move in. Just so long as they paid good old Unioncash for groceries, no one would've minded much. I added,emphatically, "He's more likely an outlaw. Maybe he murderedsomeone and he's hiding out here."

Tom tried to top my story. "I'm sure he's a Reb. He probablyrode with Quantrill."

I didn't know much about Quantrill except his Raiders had hadthe reputation of butchering free Negroes and Union sympathizersin Kansas, so I figured I had to move one up on Tom.

"Nope. He's an outlaw, for sure. He may even have stolensomeone's horse, and they'll hang him for sure if they catchhim." Actually, the notion he might be a horse stealer conjuredup visions of Pa taking his army carbine down from the wall andgoing off with a half-dozen other townsmen to pay a visit on TheStranger. The town was tolerant, but folks drew the line athorse thieves. So I strengthened my argument, or at least addedsome drama to it, by describing the hanging Pa had seen on hislast trip to the Territorial Capital.

"They've got a gallows set up right behind the courthouse." Ihad actually seen the gallows myself, though never when it wasin use. Our territory put a lot of emphasis on being law-abiding. A cattle rustler or horse thief wasn't just strung upfrom the nearest tree. The Governor insisted the thief bebrought in and stored in the capital's one-cell jail until courttime the next morning. Then the judge would find him guilty andsee to it he was hanged good and proper at high noon.

"Pa says the hangman's a real expert." I dressed up thedescription some for Tom's benefit, but mostly I was telling itlike Pa told me. "He comes out of the jailhouse wearing a blackhood, and he has a special noose with thirteen slip knots in it.Pa says it's all over in a flash. The hangman drops the nooseover the rustler's neck and pulls out the prop with a rope. Therustler drops through the trap door and his neck breaks everytime." I snapped my fingers for emphasis, and Tom jumped sohigh he startled me, and I jumped, too.

Tom's reaction set me off to impress him even more. "Pa saysthe hangman's a lot better than the ones who hanged the womanwho helped Booth. He says they had to have two men pull down onher legs to be sure she was dead."

Tom really topped my theory then — all to smithereens. His eyesgrew bigger than any saucers I'd ever seen as he said, "That'swho The Stranger is! He's John Wilkes Booth."

Tom and I had already had long discussions about how Booth hadnever really been in the burning barn where he was supposed tohave been caught, and there were a lot of people who felt thesame way. It took me only about five seconds to decide Tom wasabsolutely right, but I didn't agree with him about what weshould do. He wanted to rush home and tell his pa, but I saidwe needed proof. So we sat down and started making ourplans for the following Monday.

We were waiting at the edge of town when we saw the familiartrap approaching, leaving little swirls of dust behind it. Itwas the signal. The Stranger's place was almost five miles awayby road but, as the crow flies, it wasn't much over a couple ofmiles. And we flew! We ran across Hatfield's pasture andthrough his apple orchard, climbed the railing into his wood lotand took off down Mormon Hill, toward the one-room cabin sittingon a rise next to the creek. We headed right for the door,knowing even The Stranger would never bother to lock it up inthis country.

There was only one small window in the building, so it took us afew minutes for our eyes to become adjusted. Tom, still out ofbreath, managed to whisper in my ear, "Maybe we'll find the gunhe used."

I was always more practical than Tom. "More likely we'll findsome actor's costumes, maybe some greasepaint." I reallywasn't sure what greasepaint was, but I knew actors used it,and I figured I'd recognize it if I saw it.

Whatever the evidence, we were both positive it would be easy tofind, since there weren't many places in the room to hidethings. All there was was a rickety table with some crockerysitting on it, a couple of chairs even I could have done abetter job cobbling together, and a bunk bed which looked evensadder.

There was also a rusty Franklin stove with some metal panshanging on the wall behind it, but nothing much else in the roomexcept for a splintery old wooden chest sitting in the corner.Tom and I both headed for it at the same time.

The minute I raised the lid I spotted a black cloth. I pickedit up, and there was no mistaking it. The empty eyeholes of thehood stared out at me. Meantime, Tom had fished out a rope — anoose. I didn't have to count the knots. I knew there'd bethirteen of them, for sure. We dropped everything, includingthe lid of the trunk, and shot out the door. It took us a lotless time to get back to town than it had to get to TheStranger's cabin in the first place.

Tom and I never spoke to anyone about what we'd found, but wemade it a point to be in town every Monday morning, just outsidethe General Store. We always watched respectfully as TheStranger went in to make his purchases.

      — John Broussard