The Waiting Room: Hanging Around Until Noon
This is my response to The Waiting Room challenge that I shared with Geraldine.
Everything comes if a man will only wait.
His unfair and illegitimate arrest had shocked him. Hearing his sentence at the hastily arranged trial – one in which the whisky bottles had barely been cleared from the bar before the judge’s gavel punctuated the pronouncement – had left him scarcely able to form a coherent sentence. It was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. He had told them repeatedly his name was Scott Lancer. He had begged them time and again to contact his family. He had pleaded to be allowed to send a message. It was all to no avail. All they had done was laugh.
//This can’t be happening.//
Yesterday, or perhaps it was the day before, his disbelief had given way to anger. Fury at fate for forcing this upon him. He had come to the conclusion that a scapegoat was what they were after and a scapegoat was what they had found. He raged against the false testimony of the girl and anger drove pity for her predicament from his mind.
//This shouldn’t be happening. Not to me. Not to anyone.//
Scott tried to hold on to that anger now as he felt himself slipping into despondency. To lose hope would gain him nothing. He needed to be ready for both fight and flight and dejection would provide him with none of the resources he had to have at his disposal when the time came.
He stood on the bed, as he had done so many times already, and looked out of the tiny window of his stifling cell as he waited. The room’s only window was high up at the front of the building, in plain view of the whole town – a good way to ensure people could not sneak around to speak to the prisoner. Yet even with the main street laid out before him, Scott saw little of the dry and dusty town. His gaze could drift no further than the hastily erected wooden edifice that now dominated the town square. He tried instead to tear his gaze away and study the fountain beside it but the lack of water flowing from it made the sight too sorrowful.
The town was strangely quiet. He listened intently, straining to catch a sound that might convince him that life went on around him. He heard the harsh jingle of a horse’s tack and the soft sibilance of a broom sweeping clear the dirt that piled up daily - evidence that he was not alone despite never feeling more alone in his life. A tiny ginger kitten peeked out from beneath the boardwalk opposite. He silently willed this small sign of life to come to him but it hastily retreated, leaving him with an unreasonable yet overwhelming sense of abandonment.
The echo of a raven’s caw drew his attention back to the gallows where it perched mockingly. The thought that it was somehow laughing at his fate made him consider the possibility his distress was slowly pushing him into madness. Scott saw himself standing beneath the noose as it was slipped over his head and tightened around his neck and he wondered whether his life would flash before his eyes. Truth be told, he didn’t especially want it to: there had been far too many horrific moments he had lived through.
Better to think back on the moments he wanted to remember. He made himself concentrate on his family. He finally brought to mind Murdoch’s indulgent, paternal grin. He then considered the delight Teresa took in caring for them. He thought of his home, his land, his friends, his family and he treasured each and every look and word and touch that reminded him he was not alone in this world. Best of all he recalled the joy of finding his brother, a man so very different to himself, yet so very much the same. He longed to have Johnny beside him now. United he knew they could overcome any odds, but divided they each suffered. And death would be the ultimate division.
What would happen to Johnny when he finally tracked down his missing brother? Without doubt Johnny would find his way to this town and discover his brother dead – hanged for a crime he did not commit. Terrible images flashed through Scott’s mind of the aftermath. He pictured Johnny’s anguish at arriving too late to stop this injustice and his futile attempts to exact revenge against lethal odds. He saw his brother lying in the street, his blood pooling on the ground, the earth too dry to soak it up. And standing over his fallen brother would be their grieving father, tormented by the loss of both his sons.
Scott’s thoughts were caught in an ever-descending maelstrom of emotions. He found himself losing control and in an effort to bring himself back from that brink he forced himself to concentrate on the hard wooden floor before him and drive away the thoughts that were haunting him.
Scott stared at the timber boards until they blurred and seemed to swim towards him. Every knot had become familiar because he’d had little else to do as he waited other than count them. Sitting on his bunk he could see thirty-seven knots without turning his head. Some big, some small. If he stood in the opposite corner he could see forty-four knots. One he particularly liked was a large, perfectly round one in the centre of a board that ran from near the foot of the bunk across to the wall opposite. The knot sent the grain on either side curving around it in a fluid motion that drew his line of vision to the other end of the cell. The cell. His cell.
That realization brought him back to the moment. He could see no means for escape from this town of liars with their dirty secrets. He could do little to alter his destiny so he came to a decision. If he was to meet his doom at the hands of such corrupt men, he would do it with head held high. He had faced death before, both on the battlefield and more times than he could count since he'd arrived at Lancer. He knew he could face death again without giving these people the satisfaction of seeing fear or dread. His one regret was that he was going to die without his family around him.
//This is really happening.//
Though he couldn’t make out the words being spoken, the sound of a female voice interrupted his reverie. Soon enough a plump grey-haired woman was being ushered by the deputy through to the rear of the jailhouse.
“Come on Alice, better pass that tray to me. Your husband would never forgive me if’n you was to get hurt.” The deputy hoisted his suspenders higher on his shoulders before reaching for the load she carried.
The woman seemed to hesitate but, after clumsily removing the cloth covering the tray, she passed the food to Scott’s keeper, stepping back as he shoved it between the bars, forcing his prisoner to lunge at it and stop the plates from toppling over.
“It’s been a busy day,” she intoned. “I’d just as soon wait and take the plates back when he’s done with them. Stop your fussin’. I’ve fed more prisoners than you’ve had hot suppers. I’m perfectly safe right here.” She settled heavily into a wooden chair by the door, her eyes cast downward, the crumpled cloth clutched in her fingers.
Until now Scott’s meals had been rudimentary at best and the thought flashed through his mind that this may be the condemned man’s last meal. He forced himself to try to eat this early lunch anyway and his first mouthful convinced him it would be no hardship. With only a spoon to eat with, the fresh bread allowed him to sop up every trace of the rich gravy. He remembered his manners and stopped eating long enough to say, “Thank you ma’am. Your husband’s a very lucky man to be married to such an excellent cook.”
She didn’t acknowledge Scott’s compliment. The guard, as always, looked ready to make Scott pay for his effrontery but apparently this time thought better of it and went back to scratching at the stubble lining his cheek.
Scott started on her apple pie. He couldn’t remember ever having tasted a better pie and wondered if being locked away was beginning to play tricks with his senses. Or perhaps it was more to do with the possibility that this could be his last meal. With that morose thought he accepted his fate, and in so doing once again lost the will to change it.
Just as he was almost finished Alice found her voice and addressed his jailor. “I’ve just remembered I left his cup of cider on the barrel by the front door. Would you mind fetching it for me? Save this old knee of mine from stretching more than it needs to.”
The guard looked from Alice to Scott and obviously decided little harm would come of leaving her sitting safely out of reach of the prisoner for the few moments it would take him. The mean little man, always ready to flaunt his bluster, rattled the bars for good measure then headed back through to the adjoining office. No sooner was he out the door than Alice’s swift movement belied her complaint of painful joints. She rushed forwards, gripping the bars with one hand and thrusting something towards him with the other.
“No time to speak, boy. Just take this and listen.”
Scott looked down at the knife she held half-hidden in the cloth that had covered his tray. Quickly overcoming his surprise at salvation coming from such unexpected quarters, he grabbed the weapon from her and hurriedly concealed it under the waistband of his trousers as she continued talking.
“Some of us,” she said in a terse voice, “don’t take kindly to the way things are bein’ run around this town these days. We know when justice ain’t bein’ served and we ain’t gonna take it lyin’ down no more. Don’t you worry none. Got ourselves…”
The sound of the deputy returning stopped her short. With barely a flurry of skirts Alice was seated back in her chair as he re-entered carrying the mug.
“Don’t know why you bother with the likes of him, Alice. Water’d do him just fine.”
“I don’t reckon you or I should argue with the decisions that are made for us, do you?”
The keeper mumbled something, pushed the mug roughly between the bars then turned aside, his scowl broadcasting his unwillingness to discuss the matter further. Scott had met men like him in the past; belligerent men who could only feel important when guns or prison bars kept others in check.
Scott sipped the cider slowly, desperately trying to give both himself and Alice time to come up with a plan that would allow them further chance to speak. When he realized none was forthcoming, he reluctantly finished the cider and placed the mug on the tray before passing it all back through the bars to his jailor. “Thank you ma’am,” said Scott, ignoring the glare of the short deputy standing between him and the woman. “That meal was delicious. It was just what I was looking for. I hope you’ll be back with more for me.”
The guard chuckled sadistically. “Not likely!” he sneered as he took the tray and passed it to Alice before ushering her back through the sheriff’s office, closing the door firmly behind him. Scott willed her to turn back but she was gone. Her last words to him rang in his ears but they left him with no clue as to what further help he could expect.
He slumped back down onto his bunk despairingly and ran his fingers through his hair. He stopped. The attitude of a man’s body dictated the attitude in his mind. Someone had told him that long ago and he had used it to get himself through some very tight spots in the past. //No man really knows ‘til his time comes.// He sat upright, back erect, chin high, and forced a smile.
//I’m not going to let this happen.//
Scott picked himself up and once again stood on the squeaky bunk to look through the tiny barred window. The makeshift gallows drew a short shadow. Noon couldn’t be too far off but he no longer felt quite so helpless. Scott now had his sliver of hope and it came in the form of a six inch blade. He patted the knife secreted at his waistband and began to devise a plan. Going over it again and again he examined every contingency.
Knowing his arrest, incarceration, trial and sentence to be a charade, he felt no compunction about taking whatever steps were necessary to secure his freedom. The meek might inherit the earth, but he sure as Hell wasn’t going to go down without a fight. His plan would work if he could just catch them off-guard. For the time being he would sit here and wait. Wait for the right opportunity to present itself and be ready to seize it.
Alice had given him more than a weapon; she had given him the hope that the dissatisfied folks she had mentioned had some plan in mind to help him. As much as he’d prefer it to be his brother at his back, right now he’d take any help he could find. Be damned if anyone was going to steal his life. He was ready to fight. He was ready to kill, ready to do whatever it took, and if it meant losing his life in the struggle then so be it. At least he’d go down fighting. And if he could take some of them with him then all the better. He had the weapon, he had the will, and he even had a few dirty tricks up his sleeve.
Death comes to all of us, but Scott was determined to make it wait a whole lot longer for him.