By, Ashton Macaulay
1. The Bet
“It’s all in the feet. See? See how much he’s kicking? Can’t conserve a breath like that, no sir.” Maggie looked up at the man swinging from the high branch of Hangman’s Tree. She felt a twinge of sympathy, but mostly anticipation. A pocket watch ticked slowly in her hand.
“You’re wrong, it’s the swinging. Puts too much pressure on the neck, squeezes all the life out. Watch now.” Otis approached the hanging man following the swinging death arc with his arm.
“And how, pray tell, is he supposed to stop swinging when they kick the bucket out from under him like that?” Around a minute earlier, the lawless men had put the poor bastard to the noose and removed his last lifeline. It was a common practice, but far less likely to break the offender’s neck than traditional gallows.
Otis turned to Maggie and scoffed. “Core exercise.”
“Core exercise?!” Maggie spat in a futile gesture.
“You stop the swing with your abdomen, sucking it in like this.” Otis made a big show of sucking in what little stomach he had. “Stiff as a board, conserved energy, maybe buys you enough time that someone comes and lets you down.”
“Oh, he’ll be stiff as a board alright. What do you recon? Under three minutes?”
“Under three minutes, hah. No one has gone that quick, not even you.”
Maggie rubbed at the black scar around her neck where the rope had cut in. “That a bet then?”
Otis laughed, a hollow sound. “Oh, you bet it’s a bet. An easy one at that.”
Astride powerful horses ten feet away, the men who strung the noose watched hungrily as the hanged man’s struggle grew more desperate. The leader kicked his horse and cantered closer to the dying man. “This is what happens when you try to two-time me, boy. It’s the last mistake you ever going to make.”
Maggie moved closer, feeling a horrible sense of familiarity. “That you, Reggie?” she asked, mostly to herself. A mask covered the bottom half of the man’s face, black to match his hat and horse. As far as gallows theming went, Maggiethought it got the point across, even if it was a bit overplayed.
Otis floated circles around the hanging man. “You think everyone is Reggie. Can we keep to the matter at hand?” He glared at the condemned. “Will you hold still for one minute?!”
Maggie ignored him, staring down the leader. “It’s him, I’m sure of it.”
Otis stopped his pacing for a minute to look over. “Well, if that’s Reggie, he sure is looking well.”
“Hate in the veins will do that, keeps you young just to spite all the people who want you dead.”
“Well I’m sure there’s more than a few of those. Why do they need to do that anyway?”
“Tell the nearly dead why it is they had to die?”
“Assuaging a guilty conscience, I guess.” Maggie returned her attention to the hanging man and the pressing matter of their bet. She circled, willing him to die just a little faster. The pocket watch in her hand ticked slowly forward. “Two minutes thirty,” she called out.
“Amazing that damned thing still works. The ethereal plane won’t let me fix my damned hat, but you can pull a watch out of your pocket and it still ticks.” Otis’s hat skewed to the left, slumping down over one eye, permanently on the verge of falling off.
“Yup, the afterlife’s a bitch, Otis, and it’s about to get a lot worse for you.” She pointed a finger at the nearly deceased as his frantic swinging turned to spastic jerking.
“Ah, put him out of his misery,” cried one of the hangmen.
Maggie looked up in surprise. It was hard to tell with the mask covering most of his face, but the man who had called out sounded young. “Reggie’s recruiting kids these days?”
The leader gave a disgusted snort at the idea. “Shut up, I’m trying to enjoy this.”
“You think that’s a pervert thing?” Otis’s eyes widened.
Maggie raised an eyebrow. “Really? At a time like this?”
“Can’t tell with the mask, but I bet that sick son of a bitch is licking his lips. Criminal and a pervert. This town really does take all types.”
“Even after all these years, Otis, I will never understand what catches your attention.”
“Nobody deserves this,” called the young man. “Someone, shoot him and end this.” A nervous tremor crept into his voice.
“He keeps standing up like that and we’re going to have a second hanging today.” Hangings were the closest thing Maggie and Otis got to entertainment, but one was enough.
“I hear you. Look at the conscience on this kid. A little late, I’ll admit, but nice to see in the youth. Maggie, you know this doesn’t count, right?”
The horseman in the lead shot a glare, attempting to silence the younger man.
“Maggie, this shit does not count!”
“Maybe you can put that in the rules of the bet next time. Watch his hand.”
Sure enough, the young man’s hand moved to his pistol, hesitant at first, but firm when it found the grip. He looked at the leader and then to the dying man. “Fine, I’ll do it myself!” The young man drew his pistol, hardly taking time to aim and pulled the trigger. The shot rang clear across the plains and struck the hanged man dead in the face.
At the same instant, the hanged man appeared beneath the noose, looking much like his former self, but suffused by a pallid, green glow and semi-transparent. pulling his hands up in front of his face. “No!” he shouted.
Maggie clapped her hands together. “Down to the wire, but that is two-fifty-seven. I believe you have someone to welcome, Otis.”
“Maggie, I said this didn’t count.” If Otis’s face could have flushed, it would have. Instead, it remained the same omnipresent ethereal gray that accompanied the dearly departed.
“A bet is a bet, and you know what that means.”
“You’re a real son of a bitch, Maggie.”
“Fair is fair, break it to him gently.”
Otis shook his head and walked over to the newly deceased man still holding his hands over his face. “You can put your hands down, kid. It’s too late to block that shot.”
“Stay back!” Shouted the man, keeping his hands up.
Maggie wanted to savor her victory, but she was watching the horsemen. Already, a scuffle had broken out and the gunman with a conscience was taking a beating. The gun was out of his hand, forgotten in the dirt as two men kicked him repeatedly in the ribs.
“You’re lucky I know your pops, or you’d be swinging next to him right now.” The leader landed a savage blow, causing the kid to spit up blood.
Meanwhile, Otis knelt next to the newly deceased, trying his best to explain what was never an easy concept.
“Where—" the dead man faltered, trying to gasp for air, but finding none.
“You’ll get used to that. What’s your name?”
“Adam.” The man’s eyes were wide, searching his surroundings.
“Well, Adam, welcome to the not-so-great beyond. Name’s Otis, and that’s Maggie.”
Maggie continued watching the horsemen as they slung the battered man over his saddle and prepared to ride back towards wherever they had come from. The leader turned, his mask down, no longer needing to conceal his face.
Maggie glared at him, willing some force from beyond to let him see her.
Reggie, leader of the Hosh Gang, and the man who had hung her, gazed longingly at Hangman’s Tree. “Rot in hell, boy,” he whispered, before spurring his horse and riding into the rising sun.
2. The Not So Great Beyond
It took the better part of the afternoon for Adam to stop asking repetitive questions. Otis sat patiently through three hundred ‘why’s and ‘where’s before finally losing his cool and telling the man to suck it up. “We all got to die some time, just happened to be your day was today.” Those words had sent a cold silence into Adam that carried the three deceased into evening.
No longer compelled to help by the young man’s weeping, Otis floated over to Maggie as she stared across the desert toward the setting sun. Despite the macabre nature of the hill, it provided spectacular views of the mountains, towering high and jagged above the flat expanse of dried rock.
“That’s breaking it to him gently?” she asked with a hint of a smile.
Otis sighed and stayed quiet for a minute, looking for something far away. “No, I’m not sure there’s a way to do that. It’s why we bet, isn’t it?”
“No doubts there, but ‘we all have to die sometime’ is a bit rough.”
Otis shrugged. “How about: Sorry, kid, there might be a great beyond but this ain’t it. All your friends are somewhere high above the clouds while you’re stuck here kicking around with our dusty old asses.”
“It is an improvement.” A fly buzzed through Maggie’s nose, she swatted at it. It had been nearly fifteen years since losing her body, but she still hadn’t managed to kick the instinct. “Never thought I’d miss squashing flies.”
“And I never thought I’d miss repairing shoes for people who hated my guts, but here we are.”
Beneath the tree, Adam finally managed to float from his kneeling position to an awkward stand. A hard determination had replaced the tears in his eyes.
“He’s going to run,” commented Maggie.
“They always do.” Otis glided toward Adam, but the kid was already moving.
Adam churned his legs as if it still mattered and zoomed across the dusty ground like an undead bullet. Otis and Maggie watched as his pale form streaked across Hangman’s Hill, heading for the desert beyond.
“You really don’t want to do that,” called Maggie, putting no effort into it.
“Everyone has to experience it at least once.”
Adam heard neither of them and ran as fast as he could, trying to outrun whatever horrible limbo he was stuck in. Then, he hit the barrier. A blinding wall of white energy shot into the sky, soon fading to a wisp like a transient version of the Aurora Borealis. Adam flew backward, his otherworldly energy bursting and throwing up puffs of greenish white steam.
“And down he goes. Good legs on him though. Took me forever to figure out how to move like that.” Otis flexed his legs as they hovered an inch above the ground, a strictly performative act that helped bring a sense of normalcy to a situation that was anything but. In the spirit world, movement was a matter of will more than anything else, and Adam clearly had that in spades.
The explosive force of the barrier threw Adam backward, leaving him stunned and rotating midair. When he had recovered enough to feel pain, he let out a curse so loud that it could have cleared the desert for miles. Of course, the only people that heard it were the deceased.
“Now that’s a swear I haven’t heard before.”
Maggie whistled. “Alright, I guess I’ll take a turn.” She walked to where Adam was floating, still sizzling from his collision. “Hurts like a bitch, don’t it?”
“How? How does it hurt?” Adam’s voice was strained and filled with pain.
“Not sure exactly, but most try it at least once.”
“Where the hell are we?”
Maggie floated down, kneeling so they were eye level. “I don’t know, but we have some guesses. Why don’t you come over with Otis and me? We’ll fill you in.”
Adam tried pushing himself to a standing position but succeeded only in pushing his limbs through the unnoticing earth. He grimaced and kicked his feet, sending himself into a slow spin.
“Ah, yeah, that’s not how it works here. Try thinking about floating upright, but make sure you don’t go too high. Next, you’re going to get the bright idea that you can fly out of here, but let me tell you, it’ll hurt worse.” Maggie thought about her first attempt and felt the burning sensation on her scalp from where she had hit. “Suffice it to say, we’re penned in. It’s a pretty pen – when there aren’t rotting corpses that is – but it’s still a pen.”
Adam strained, floating to a lopsided standing position. “Is this Hell?”
“If it is, God didn’t put anyone here to torment us except us.” Maggie smiled. “Probably closer to the biblical concept of purgatory.” She floated in Otis’s direction and motioned for Adam to follow.
He didn’t move, instead looking at her with suspicion.
“Oh, come on, you’re part of the club now.” Maggie motioned to the scar around her neck and tried to ignore the neat bullet hole in the center of Adam’s forehead. Lucky for the kid, there were no mirrors and he wouldn’t be able to feel it.
Adam floated forward, unsteady at first, but finding his way.
“As far as we can tell, we’re stuck here.” Otis made a motion to the hill.
“On Hangman’s Hill?” asked Adam.
“Well, as it turns out, that’s not what the natives called it. The first hangman probably thought it looked like a good place to die, and didn’t bother to read the carvings at the base of the tree, or the signs along the trail to get here for that matter.”
Adam squinted at the base of the tree. “Those are words?”
“Just because our forefathers were ignorant, doesn’t mean we have to be.” Maggie rolled the words over in her mind, feeling a sting of pain saying them again.
“She’s a bit touchy on the subject. It’s why she was hung in the first place.”
“For reading the native tongue?”
“Shoshoni,” corrected Maggie.
“For suggesting we’re equal with them.”
“Turns out, freedom isn’t actually meant for everyone.” Maggie stopped the rage bubbling inside and thought about the memory of what it was like to take deep breaths. It helped bring her back to a sense of relative calm. “In a fitting fate, the men who hung me couldn’t read Shoshoni. This was a place of communion with the gods, and that script was meant to keep unwanted spirits out of the conversation.”
“Unfortunately, we think that’s what’s got us penned in.”
Adam put his head between his legs, turning his slow spin into an endless somersault. “So, we’re stuck here forever?”
Maggie chuckled at the morose corpse spinning like a children’s top. In death, she had found humor in the little things. “Not to put too fine a point on it, yes. You can stop that spin if you like, just think—”
Adam let out a choked sob.
“You’re embarrassing yourself more than usual for a man who’s soiled himself in front of company.” They might not have been able to smell it, but there was a telltale drip off Adam’s corpse as it swung lightly in the evening breeze.
Adam stopped spinning and glowered at her. “You have some kind of—”
“Boy, the sunsets sure are nice,” broke in Otis. “Why don’t we all take a moment and enjoy that before we return to this existential debate.”
Over the horizon, the sun sank low in its arch, bathing the desert in blood red light. The blue sky turned shades of purple streaked with gold. Jagged outlines of far distant mountains became silhouettes of teeth consuming the fleeing sky. A coyote howled in the distance, waking for a night of hunting.
Adam took a moment away from his petulance to appreciate the natural beauty of their surroundings, but quickly became distracted by the memory of his own corpse.
Otis looked at him with genuine pity. “That’ll be gone soon enough, don’t worry about it.”
“What happened to yours?”
“I think there’s still a rib bone over there somewhere.” Maggie pointed toward the hanging tree. “But the animals out here are hungry and quick. Trust me, they may not be here yet but they’re coming.”
“What my tactful friend here is trying to say is that it’s all part of the cycle of life. The earth has fed you for many years, and now it’s your turn to give back.” Otis gave Maggie a reproachful look.
“That is a nicer way of putting it,” admitted Adam.
“Best we turn around and talk about something else.”
On cue, moonlight reflected off a pair of eyes approaching from the darkening desert.
Otis grimaced. “Maggie’s right though, they’re hungry. This might be the way of things, butit’s going to be gross. Why don’t we
just walk away?”
Adam’s eyes were fixed on the coyote.
“You really don’t want to watch that.” Maggie was already floating away.
Adam didn’t move.
“Look, you might think you’ve seen it all, being that you’ve died and arrived on the spiritual plane, but watching yourself get eaten… No one needs to see that.”
Adam remained silent.
“Suit yourself, kid.” Otis joined Maggie just as the first coyote made its way up the hill.
“Shoo! Get out of here!” Adam yelled.
Otis shook his head. “That one’s going to be a handful.”
3. Another Hanging in Paradise
The following month was hot, the sun’s scorching rays beating down on the packed earth and sending waves through the otherwise clear air. While neither Maggie nor Otis felt it, they did notice the stillness that accompanied the extreme temperature. Even the snakes, usually so fond of basking in the sun, crawled back in their holes for fear of being cooked in their own skin. Late summer was always that way, and brought dull boredom with it as the days went on.
Adam looked up hopefully at the sound of every hoofbeat on the horizon. Whether it was a misguided prayer for rescue, or the promise of future company that wasn’t, Otis and Maggie found difficult to tell. In either case, the result was shit company and a disturbance of the tenuous peace the other two spirits worked so hard to achieve.
Maggie sat in the higher bows of the hanging tree. Her ass hovered a few inches inside her chosen branch but was close enough to make the action feel real. Too much time floating through anything and everything was enough to drive someone mad. Pretending the rules of physics still applied was one of the many tricks she had learned to stay sane. From her perch, she watched the wagons and horses cut a wide berth around Hangman’s Hill and didn’t blame them – it was haunted after all.
The sun made its way across the arid sky as she reflected on her death and the days that followed. Unlike the people hung after her, Maggie had been alone. Back then, the hill had been so quiet. While most of the deceased weren’t keen on talking, Maggie could hear their spirits rustling just beneath the crust of the earth. Most tried to find sanity, speaking with her and Otis for a day or two, but in the end, they all did the same thing.
Six feet below the ground, thirty or so odd spirits lay horizontal with their eyes closed, pretending to be dead. Feeling particularly morbid, Maggie floated through the layers of the earth to peer in at the others, but there wasn’t much to see aside from dirt and otherworldly green energy. She and Otis had taken to calling them The Dirt Nappers. Neither of them was much for creative energy. They tried their best not to disturb them, but on the occasions they did, the spirits grew violent and became every bit of a poltergeist they could muster. One of them had moved a branch in a moment of particular passion, but Maggie had been the only witness.
Maggie shook her head and floated back to the top of her tree. Watching the world slide idly by while sitting in the branches of her tree was as close to peace as Maggie had ever found. In life, there had been a profound calling for action every second to fight for every man, woman, and child on earth. In death, there was nothing to be done. Sitting and waiting for nothing was the best damned retirement she could have asked for, and Otis was right; the sunsets were fantastic.
Adam on the other hand could find no such peace. He spent his days trying to break through the barrier, enduring the painful shock that went along with it each time and finding new and creative ways to curse. The sound of his cries broke Maggie’s calm and made it nearly impossible to appreciate the serenity that was her afterlife. Otis had always been good about knowing when to shut up. Adam always assumed it was his turn to talk and spewed a continuous string of unhelpful questions.
One day, still sizzling from his latest escape attempt, Adam had fixated on the idea of pockets. “Why do we still have ‘em?” He pushed his hands through his pants for emphasis.
“Have what?” asked Otis.
“Pockets, why do we still have pockets?”
Otis for his part encouraged the kid and didn’t make things any easier. “If you really want to keep yourself up at night, ask Maggie why she’s got a still-functioning pocket watch, yet I can’t fix my damned hat.”
“Don’t start about the hat again.” Over time, Maggie learned that Adam wasn’t curious so much as eager for an opportunity to complain.
“She has a what?”
Otis laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about it, you’ll see it when we get to bettin’.”
“If he asks another question, I’m going to run into the barrier myse—” Maggie stopped, going silent. In the distance, she heard hoofbeats, followed by whoops and hollers echoing across the desert. It was the telltale mix of excitement and testosterone that only came from impending murder.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, another one?” Otis floated up to get a better look. Sure enough, a party of four men was riding toward the tree. “It’s that damned summer heat, puts the devil in men.”
“Just in men?”
“Oh, let’s not get into gender norms now, Maggie, there’s a hangin’ to watch.”
Maggie glared at him but returned her attention to the riders. “I bet that’s Reggie again.”
Otis scoffed. “Why don’t we just ask young Adam here.”
Adam floated up beside them, struggling to maintain his balance. “Reggie?” he asked.
“You probably know him by Reginald, the man that hung you.”
“Oh.” Adam paused. “Yeah, he’s none too fond of me.”
Maggie let out a slight whoop. “Told you, Otis. Could spot that man a mile away.”
“Yes, and being right is such a lovely color on you. Now why would our dear friend Reginald want you hung?” asked Otis.
“I may have…”
Maggie turned toward him. “May have what?”
“Slept with his wife.” Despite the circumstances, Adam still had a tinge of pride as he said it.
Maggie scoffed. “To think, Otis and I were both unjustly strung up, and you’re just here because you couldn’t keep it in your pants. Well, The Hanging Tree really does take all types.”
“Shut up, kid, it’s time to bet.” Otis watched the riders carefully. “He’s got a bag over his head, just like this one.” He jerked a thumb to Adam. “But he’s making a lot less noise, probably conserving oxygen.”
Maggie looked down at the men, sizing up the victim. “This is a tricky bet.”
“What are we betting on?” Adam hovered closer, still correcting for a constant, slow forward spin he couldn’t seem to shake.
Otis ignored him. “You know he’s not getting enough air in that bag. Means he’s going to be quicker.”
“Don’t think he does his core exercises?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t.”
“What the hell are you talking about?!” Adam’s form glowed bright before settling to muted green.
“We’re betting on how long it’s going to take this man to die once they string him up.” Saying it out loud made Maggie feel shameful, but not enough to stop taking mental measurements in her head. Besides, Adam would be a dirt napper before long; the crazy had already begun to eat into his brain.
Adam made a disgusted noise.
“Look, kid, we’re stuck, can’t do nothing about this poor bastard’s fate, might as well have a little fun. Think they’ll use a bucket, Otis?”
“There has to be something we can do. No one should suffer a fate like this.”
Maggie ignored him. “I’m going to say four minutes on the nose. Less if there’s a bucket, for obvious reasons.”
“That is a long time to sway on the rope.” Otis thought it over. “I’ll take that action. The usual bet?”
“You’re both pathetic. I’m going to do something about this.”
“Have fun, kid.”
Adam floated away from the other two spirits, towards the approaching party. Had they been able to see him, he might have cut an intimidating figure. The image of a spirit floating down from a hanging tree to greet bandits would have sent anyone running. Fortunately for the greasy men, confident atop their horses, they saw nothing but an empty tree.
“Oh, this is perfect. You’re going to love this place, Larry” said the man in the lead with a hearty guffaw. “Bill, take his bag off.”
“That’s not Reggie.” Maggie could tell immediately. The leader was too round about the middle, and Reggie only laughed once a job was done.
One of the horsemen stepped down.
Adam walked up until he was right between Bill and the to-be-hung. “Hey, get out of here!” he yelled.
“Well this is new.” Maggie watched eagerly.
Bill, a thick barrel of a man, took no notice, passing right through Adam on his way to remove the victim from his horse. There wasn’t even a shudder of acknowledgment or a cold chill.
Adam yelled. “Screw this!” His spirit glowed bright once again.
“How is he doing that?” asked Otis.
Maggie didn’t answer, but was instead watching the horsemen, one of whom twitched when Adam’s form glowed. She couldn’t be sure, but it almost looked like the man had seen him. “Holy shit,” she muttered. “I don’t believe it.”
Adam paid neither of them any attention and ran full speed at Bill. His spirit reached a blinding level of brilliance and then disappeared. Bill looked momentarily sick, his hand still wrapped around the rope connected to their prisoner. Then, his arm jerked out to the side, violently, snapping the rope taught and pulling the victim off the horse.
Maggie watched as the bagged man fell in slow motion with a muffled cry. He twisted, trying to right himself, but landed firmly on his head. There was a sickening crunch as his neck cracked against the hard-packed dirt. Adam reappeared in the same instant, moving at high speed as if Bill’s body had shot him out like a cannon. His spirit smacked into the barrier, sending up a huge burst of energy, outlining the upper portion of the dome in its entirety.
“What the hell did you just do, Bill?” The leader hopped off his horse and walked around to where the hanging victim now lay slumped. “Ah, Christ.”
Bill looked around wildly, confused. “What just h-happened?” He ran his hands over his skin as if it were someone else’s.
Maggie didn’t have to look closely to understand the position of the victim’s neck wasn’t healthy. It was slumped to the side at a forty-five degree angle, and the man gave no movement other than slight twitches of his feet.
“Hell, he’s still alive. No point in hanging him now, Bill. He probably can’t feel shit.” In a surprising act of mercy, the leader pulled out his pistol and shot the twitching man in the head.
At the same instant, an older man appeared, lying on the ground, right next to his body, neck still bent at an odd angle.
“Holy shit,” muttered Otis.
“Did Adam just possess someone?”
“He sure did, and you lost the bet. Time to pay up.”
4. The Rise and Fall of Crooked Larry
All Maggie wanted to do was ask Adam about the possession, but a bet was a bet. From word one, it was clear that Larry wasn’t going to last. When Maggie floated down from the top of the tree toward his position near the ground, he recoiled in shock and tried to kick his way backward. Of course, this had no effect other than making him look slightly ridiculous as he flailed midair, but Maggie understood the impulse.
“Begone, demon!” Larry shouted. “God does not suffer evildoers like you!”
“Christ, Adam, you killed a zealot.” Those with faith never lasted long in Maggie’s experience. There was something particularly demoralizing about being confronted with the absolute fact that, if there was a god, they had a blind spot.
“I am on my way to eternal rest!”
“Yeah, if that’s true, then you’ve taken a bit of a detour.” It wasn’t the most tactful way to go about it, but Maggie didn’t suffer religion much. As far as she was concerned, the word of God was used to persecute and commit heinous acts while still being able to sleep at night. There were of course religions around the world that preached tolerance, but not in the west. In the west, there was good ol’ bible-thumping, and anything else saw you swinging from the end of a rope or taking a bullet in a back alley.
“This c-can’t be,” the man stammered, running his hands through one another, no doubt fascinated by the complete lack of feeling in anything. “Those men, this has to be some kind of a mistake.”
For once, Maggie agreed with him. “What’s your name?”
“Larry. Pastor at the Church of Our Mighty God.”
“How is it that you came to be in such mixed company, Larry¸ Pastor at the Church of Our Mighty God?” Maggie let the sarcasm drip with every word of the man’s title.
“I—” he faltered as Adam appeared over the curve of the hill, still steaming from his run-in with the barrier. “That’s the demon I saw just moments before the end!” Larry tried to tilt his head to get a better look, but found it stuck at an extreme angle. Like Adam, he also sported a neat hole in his forehead, making them look as though they might have belonged to the same sect of some obscure cult.
Maggie chuckled at the notion and immediately regretted it.
“Is something funny about this?” Larry found his way to a semi-upright float, swelling up with righteous indignation. He tried to adjust his neck again, but frustrated, settled for hovering at an angle to make the world look straight.
Otis floated down to join the conversation. “I see Maggie’s giving you the warm welcome you deserve.”
“Oh yes, Larry here was telling me all about how this is some kind of mistake.”
Otis sighed. “Yeah, well he’s not wrong about that.”
Adam approached with excitement and no sense of caution. “Did you see that? I was in that man’s body!”
“I saw you get shot out the other side like an imbecile.” Maggie was impressed, but she didn’t want to inflate Adam’s head any larger than it already was. “Maybe next time you might save a life instead of taking one.”
“YOU, DEMON!” shouted Larry.
“I’m not a demon.” Adam backed away slightly. “But, look, sorry about that whole mess back there. You were about to be hung…”
Otis nodded in agreement. “Kid’s got a point, and I don’t say that often.”
“Why, God?!” Larry tried to look up, but couldn’t quite manage it without floating sideways.
“Look, I’m sorry about that, but I think I might have a way to get us out of here.” Adam’s eyes were beaming, filled with newfound excitement.
Maggie also felt a twinge of hope but did her best not to show it. “That seems like a far leap from one quick possession.”
“Well, it’s a step in the right direction!”
“Possession is the work of The Devil!” shouted Larry.
“Oh please, there’s no Devil and no God here, just the four of us.”
Adam grew frustrated and ignored Larry. “Don’t you see? If we can get back to the physical world, even for a moment, then we have a chance of destroying the barrier penning us in .”
Maggie thought it over. “You might be right, but the incantations keeping us here were made by the Shoshoni, and I don’t know how you’re going to break them.”
“I’m through with this demon speak!”
Otis floated in front of Larry, partially obscuring the other two spirits. “Why don’t you and I go have a talk, Larry? We can discuss the religious implications of our predicament, while these two heathens keep on with whatever it is they’re blabbering about.” He gave Larry a big smile and motioned toward the tree.
Larry eyed Otis suspiciously, eventually consenting. “Whatever gets me away from him.” He jabbed a finger in Adam’s direction.
“I said I was sorry!”
“Let it go, kid.” She mouthed ‘thank you’ as Otis shepherded Larry away.
Otis gave her a curt nod.
“I’m definitely going to owe him for that one. Listen, if Otis is having ‘the talk’ with him, Larry will be gone by nightfall.” Over the years, Otis had honed the skill of talking people into the ground. As it turned out, not everyone who was hung was pleasant, and the peaceful repose the two of them had cultivated could be easily undone. Maggie would have felt bad about it, but all the spirits stayed underground of their own volition. Unlike the circle around the hill, no one was forcefully keeping them there.
She waited to be sure Otis and Larry were out of earshot before continuing. “Alright, kid, how did you do it?”
Excitement flashed back into Adam’s eyes. “I’m not sure. I got angry, like really angry, and the next thing I knew I was running. It felt like passing through a spiderweb or something, and then I was back in the land of the living. I actually felt the breeze on my skin.”
Maggie savored the sensation that ran through her at the idea of feeling the wind. She was comfortable in her afterlife, but there were things she missed.
“I could try to teach you.”
Maggie reserved her excitement, knowing that if they failed, Adam would be insufferable again. “Teach me how to get angry and run at someone?”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m not sure how it works but you speak Shawshanee.”
“Shoshoni,” she corrected him.
“Right, but you speak it, so you could possess one of the hangmen and get us out of here.”
“I haven’t had the opportunity to practice in almost fifteen years. Best I could manage is basic conversation. But, assuming I could figure out a way, how do we know I’ll even be able to stay in long enough to break the barrier?”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
Maggie looked around at the desert. The last thing she wanted to do was have Adam teach her anything. The kid was arrogant, privileged, and too damned unstable, but it was hard to ignore what he had done. “Fine, but I’m not going to call you sir or show you any deference.”
Adam whooped with joy; the sound more haunting than he had expected.
“Let’s check on Otis.”
As they turned around, Maggie caught sight of Larry’s head passing through the dirt, an expression of righteousness on his face. Otis was standing above him, muttering some words that sounded vaguely like a prayer. When Larry had fully submerged, Maggie and Adam floated over.
“Didn’t know you were religious, Otis.”
Otis made a shushing sound with his finger and motioned for them to float away. When they were a safe distance away from Larry’s ‘rest’, he spoke. “I went to church a few times in town, before it became clear I wasn’t welcome, but I’ve got a dang good memory. I just pieced together a few prayers and sermons that fit my goal, and next thing you know, Larry’s convinced he’s waiting for God underneath that soil.”
Adam looked disgusted, but also impressed. “Damn, old timer.”
“Who you calling old timer? Besides, I was saving your ass from months of religious repentance at his hand.”
“Don’t worry, Otis, you’ll forgive the kid if what we’re talking about works. We’ve got a plan.”
5. Thunder on the Horizon
Adam’s idea of a training regimen wasn’t much. Day after day, he told Maggie to ‘focus her anger’ or ‘really think about it’. Finding her rage was not as easy as it had once been. Over the years, she had found ways around it, trying to come to peace rather than continuously dwelling on the past. As a result, she had let go of the stronger emotions that possessed and guided people like Adam.
Fall came, quickly followed by winter, and the hangings slowed, so they had plenty of time to practice, and even more for Maggie to be frustrated at the lack of progress. While Adam was able to summon his spiritual flash almost on command, she had gotten nowhere. The process was demoralizing and helped none by the constant presence of Otis chuckling to himself and giving tips like: ‘put your back into it’ or ‘focus comes from the mind’. All things considered, they were six of the worst months Maggie had spent at The Hanging Tree.
Training took time away from her rest, and for the first time, Maggie felt tired. The idea of floating down into the dirt didn’t seem so bad after all. Of course, her body was non-existent, so physical exhaustion wasn’t a concern, but her mind felt like old wood, bent near the point of splintering. Focusing so much on her rage reminded her why she had been hung in the first place, and the injustice of it all.
She could still taste the stale desert air and feel the heat on her back as they marched her up the hill. Reggie had ridden beside her, keeping a personal eye on the proceedings as he always did. He had only been back a few times since, but it seemed he never let others do his dirty work. At least the man had principles to balance out his complete lack of morality and empathy. If someone was going to be hanged, he was going to be there for it. That day, he had even gotten off his horse to tie the noose and give an explanation.
Reggie had told her she was ‘bad for business’. That’s how simple it had been. Maggie blinked, trying to come back to the present moment. For years, she had drifted back to her death daily and it had nearly driven her insane. The key was to stay calm and stay present, but everything about ‘training’ with Adam had thrown that out the window. To be truly angry, she had to dwell on the past. Despite the mental gymnastics, Maggie hadn’t managed more than a slight glimmer.
Time passed at an uneven rate. Before Maggie knew it, winter was gone and spring rolled in. She had a vague memory of continuing to train with Adam, but it felt like she never left the tree at all. She sat on the highest branch, watching the seasons change, looking for something on the horizon that never came. A flash of lightning followed by the distant roll of thunder broke her from her stupor. Spring had come and dark clouds were building over the plains, bringing the much-needed rain that would sustain them for the rest of the year. A good storm every six months was enough to bring life to even the most desolate places.
A sound rose above the anticipatory quiet of the hill. Hoofbeats; there were hoofbeats. The telltale dust was tamped down to earth by humidity, but she could pick out the riders on the horizon. She looked down to Adam and Otis who were playing a game of mental cards. It was mostly cheating and trying to lie about it, but it helped pass the time, and there wasn’t much else to do when people weren’t being hung. Maggie savored the moments before they too noticed the noise.
Like a dog smelling a treat, Adam cocked his head to the side. “You hear that, Otis?”
Otis floated slightly higher above the ground. “Indeed, I do. Looks like you’re in luck, kid, I won’t have to finish the beatdown I was giving you.”
“I had a pair of aces!”
“Then how is it that I had three, hm?” Otis shook his head. “I swear, you really don’t understand this game.”
Maggie floated down from the tree. “Otis cheats too, Adam.”
“Don’t tell him that,” hissed Otis.
Adam was distracted, staring in the direction of the hoofbeats. “We going to do this?”
Maggie sighed. “We’ll give it a shot.” In her mind, there was no way in hell they were going to do anything of the sort, but the kid had his heart set. There was nothing to do past that other than give it her best.
Together, the three of them floated to the edge of the barrier, watching the rider’s approach.
“He’s wearing a bag; you know what that means.” Otis faltered. “Sorry, force of habit.”
“Just because we’re trying to stop it doesn’t mean we can’t bet. He’s not wearing a shirt either.”
Otis whistled. “I told you it was a pervert thing.”
“What’s a pervert thing?” asked Adam.
“Watch the leader after he hangs him. Really gets off on this.”
“He’s not going to hang him, because we’re going to stop it,” pointed out Adam.
“And it’s not a pervert thing,” answered Maggie. She was looking at the painted lines on the man’s chest and felt her heart leap and sink at the same time. “He’s from the local tribe. Look at his braids and the markings on his chest.”
“Are you saying what you think I’m saying?”
“I’m not sure.” From the distance it was hard to tell what tribe the man was from, but if he was coming to Hangman’s Hill, it couldn’t have been that far. “Maybe we’ll have to pop into a body and ask him.”
The hanging party was composed of five riders and the to-be-hung. Unlike before, none of the men were hiding their faces.
“That’s more than usual. Most we’ve seen is three.” Otis said it more for Adam’s benefit than anything.
Thunder rumbled over the hill. The storm was getting closer.
When the hangmen eventually made their way to the tree, red hot fury pulsed through Maggie. At the lead was Reggie, smiling smugly like he was out for a stroll with the family. She looked at the other men and saw Jeremiah, a bookkeeper from town, as well as some familiar faces from town. These were not usually men that would come out for a hanging, but the hunger in their eyes was all too familiar.
“Why you think they aren’t wearing masks?” asked Adam.
Maggie ground her teeth. “Because they don’t think what they’re doing is wrong, and neither does anyone else.” The markings on the native man’s chest and elaborate decoration on his pants suggested that he was coming from a celebration.
“How could they do that?”
“Kid, you wouldn’t know. I suspect the world likes you just fine.” Otis tried to wring his hands. “For people like me or Maggie over there, it’s different. The world doesn’t like us by default.”
Maggie nodded. “This man is nothing more than a savage as far as they’re concerned. It doesn’t matter if he lives or dies in the eyes of the people, so long as he doesn’t get in the way of civilized life.” The anger pulsed through Maggie and she felt a queer sensation as energy radiated from her spine.
“That’s it!” shouted Adam. “You did it, I saw the flash!”
“Great.” Maggie felt no relief or excitement, only pure anger. “I guess it’s time to make some trouble then.” She charged forward pointing all of her anger toward the horsemen. She looked between the five of them and picked the weakest one. Jeremiah didn’t look like he had much of a fight in him, but there was still a pistol strapped to his belt. She bolted towards him with as much speed as she could manage.
The air cooled noticeably around her as she ran and the shock of feeling anything was almost enough to make her stumble. Wisps of wind cut through the overwhelming numbness that had been normal. Lightning flashed, close this time, illuminating the men in pale white light, making them look somehow more ghostly than the deceased themselves. Rain fell in the charged air making soft pattering on the dry rock below.
In an instant, Maggie was passing through the man and she felt an elastic sensation as her spirit caught on his, pulling her backward and stopping her momentum. There was a brief disorienting whirl as she oriented in his body, and in the next second, she was looking out his eyes. Rain was falling heavy now, making clean lines in the dust-laden wrinkles of his palms. Maggie clenched Jeremiah’s fist, feeling the water run through it. The sensation was heaven and being back in the land of the living was overwhelming.
Standing up slightly in her stirrups, she looked toward where she knew Adam and Otis were standing. She could see nothing. Ahead of her, Reggie was removing the bag from the native man’s head.
“You ok there, Jeremiah?” asked an ugly-looking man beside her.
Maggie recognized him from her own hanging party. On pure instinct, she reached for the pistol at Jeremiah’s hip. “You may not remember me, but you deserve this.” She drew the pistol in a flash, a miracle given Jeremiah’s poor dexterity, and shot the man in the chest. Blood sprayed the desert behind him. He choked on his confusion, looking to Jeremiah, just as the other men began to turn. Maggie watched as her target slumped off his horse. She thumbed back the hammer, ready to fire again.
Excitement and adrenaline ran through the veins she was borrowing, and then something hit her in the chest. It was like being kicked by a horse, and then suddenly, all feeling was gone. Maggie was back in her spirit form, flying. Reacting on instinct, she leaned forward, slowing her momentum but not quickly enough. White hot fire lit up her back, sending bolts of pain shooting through every inch of her ethereal form as she smashed into the barrier. Steam rose in long tendrils from her back.
Maggie ignored the pain, looked back toward the riders, and charged again.
6. Maggie’s Revenge
Herb Withers watched in horror as Jeremiah raised his hitherto unused pistol. The barrel was pointed right at Herb’s chest, and before there was any chance to react, a deafening thunderclap rocked him backward. He wondered for a brief, confusing moment if he had been struck by lightning, but the warm sensation flowing from his back said otherwise. Shock and confusion ran through him in waves as he tried to keep his balance on his horse. If he could just stay upright, maybe they could get him back to town and do something about it.
Darkness surrounded the hill, closing in on all sides. He looked up at the ominous, bloated sky above him. “I just wanted to see that man hung.” Blood bubbled from his mouth as he said it, choking him and making the words barely audible. In a snap, any and all sensation was gone and he was floating midair next to his horse. Staring at him were two men, both with hangmen’s marks around their neck and one with a neat bullet hole in the middle of his head.
“Where the hell am I?!”
Otis, still in shock from the events unfolding, shrugged. “You’re dead, but I don’t know if that’s going to be a problem for long at the rate she’s going.” He pointed a finger toward Maggie who was already recovering from her run-in with the barrier and headed back toward the fray.
The horsemen spun around wildly, drawing their guns.
“What the hell have you done, Jeremiah?” asked Reggie, with more annoyance than anything.
“I-I don’t know. It just—”
Reggie cut off his explanation by shooting Jeremiah in the head.
“NO!” shouted Jeremiah as he appeared midair. His hands stretched out, still trying to block the shot that had sent his body flying backward off his horse. The damp desert floor soaked up his blood greedily, happy for the extra moisture.
“Jeremiah, you son of a bitch!” yelled Herb. “Why’d you go and shoot me like that for?!”
“I-I don’t know what happened.” Jeremiah’s eyes were wide. “Am I dead?”
Maggie streaked past them, trying to enjoy the newfound chaos in the spirit realm and pointed herself at Reggie’s right-hand lieutenant. He held a repeating rifle and had good positioning on the other two men. His name was Hugo, and Maggie shuddered at the idea of sharing a body with him even for a second. She swallowed her disgust and shot forward. Like before, there was the elastic pull and sudden disorientation.
The first thing she noted was the sourness of Hugo’s breath and the soreness radiating from his lower back. Maggie counted herself lucky that she didn’t have to stay long. She raised the repeater, aiming for the man on Reggie’s left. Her first shot caught him in the shoulder, sending him spinning. He fell off his horse but wasn’t mortally wounded.
Maggie spurred Hugo’s mount, riding over to finish the job, but a splintering pain took hold in her left arm. She hadn’t even heard the gunshot but knew it was Reggie that fired. Pain throbbed through the point of impact, just above Hugo’s elbow. Hot blood ran down his arm in a wave, coating his fingers in the sticky mortal substance. Maggie fought desperately to hold on to Hugo’s corporeal form and managed.
She looked up and saw Reggie turned to the native man, still tied up on horseback. “Don’t go anywhere. Apparently, I’ve got some other business to attend to.”
Rain fell heavy now, mixing with Hugo’s blood and running in small rivers down the hill. Lightning flashed, casting Reggie in shadows as he dismounted. The world spun around Maggie and her mind shook like an overworked muscle. Holding onto Hugo when he wasn’t dying was hard enough, but this was torture. She willed herself to stay and turned her head to look for Hugo’s pistol, lying on the ground a few feet away.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you.” Reggie had his pistol drawn, the black barrel a gaping maw.
“You think that scares me?” It was strange to hear Hugo’s voice with her words. “Pull the trigger and be done with it.” Maggie wasn’t sure she had another possession in her, but she was sure as hell going to try. The edges of Hugo’s skin pushed at her like a thousand needles, trying desperately to shed the bodily invader. “I’m not done with you yet, Hugo.” She clenched his hands into fists, wincing at the pain in his left arm.
“Now, the Hugo I know is a coward and would never try shit like this.” Reggie turned toward the Hangman’s Tree, then back to face her. “This is crazy, but I don’t see another solution. I’m not talking to Hugo, am I?”
“You catch on quick.” Maggie spat blood. “You deserve everything you have coming.”
Reggie cocked his head to the side. “Who is that in there? Someone we hung here before?”
“Hard to keep track of the atrocities you’ve committed on this hill?” She crept her right fingers toward the gun.
In a blinding flash, Reggie aimed his pistol and blew Hugo’s fingers off.
Maggie cursed, screaming in pain.
“Yeah, see, Hugo wouldn’t do a fool thing like that either. Sounds like I’m dealing with Maggie Brown.”
Maggie made no effort to hide the pained smile she spread across Hugo’s face. “In the flesh, back for my revenge.”
Reggie whistled. “Never thought I’d have to kill you twice, but today has already been quite the day. Reggie checked on the native man who still sat patiently on his horse. “Suppose you feel it’s wrong of us to be killing savages?”
“Do you really need an answer to that?”
“What was it I told you before? It’s just bad for business. That’s right, and it’s still true. I’m a man of dollars and cents, and these uncultured folk coming into our fine town aren’t good for my business, or the town for that matter.”
Maggie felt control slipping away but pushed to hold on. The pistol was out of reach, but she didn’t want to give Reggie the satisfaction of winning again. The man deserved to die. Out of the corner of her eye, Maggie spied movement as the other man she had shot got slowly to his feet.
“You alright over there, John?” asked Reggie.
“Yeah, the pissant just winged me.” The man was wrapping a makeshift bandage around his shoulder.
“Well, as it turns out, this pissant is none other than our good friend, Maggie Brown. You’ll remember her.”
John walked over to get a better look. As he got closer, he stumbled and his eyes went wide.
“You good?” asked Reggie, never letting the pistol barrel leave Maggie.
John recovered, but Maggie could see the difference in his expression. “Yeah, think I’m just a little low on blood.”
“Well, let’s finish our business quickly and get you back to town. We’ve lost enough good men to this bitch today.”
Maggie smiled through the pain and blood. “Anything for you, Reggie.”
“How sweet of you. Unfortunately, we’re in a bit of a hurry now, so I’m going to have to cut our little chit-chat short. I think I’ll send you back to where you belong. Any last words? Don’t think I gave you the chance last time.”
John winked at her and dropped a hand to his pistol.
Maggie smiled. “Yeah, payback is a bitch.”
“Ain’t that the tru—”
John raised his pistol and shot Reggie in the side of the head. The bullet passed clean through, sending a red spray into the growing wind. Reggie fell to his knees, mouth opening and closing slightly. In the same moment, John’s body shook violently, and his eyes were wide once more. “Oh god, what have I done? Reggie?!”
Maggie didn’t wait for him to get his bearings she rolled to her pistol, picked it up with her good hand, and used the last of Hugo’s strength to fire it. The force of the pistol rocking back threatened to tear Hugo’s wounded arm off. Hot pain bloomed, but the shot hit. John dropped to the ground.
Buzz saws ran down every inch of Hugo’s body, trying to forcibly cut Maggie out. The world blurred between the grey of the spirit realm and the churning darkness of a dying man’s last vision. Hugo was losing a lot of blood. Maggie took what remained of her resolve and stood. Waves of nausea and dizziness swept over her, but she stumbled toward the native man all the same. Each step was a marathon task. Hugo’s legs moved like they were dragging fifty-pound weights behind him.
Maggie pulled a knife out of Hugo’s belt, wanting to cut the native man free, but dropped it through his bloody fingers. “Shit,” she muttered. It was hard to remember anything through the haze of agony that surrounded every movement. “Help us,” she managed in broken Shoshoni. “The dead are trapped.” The world went dark and a force shot Maggie from Hugo’s body. She caught a brief glimpse of the spirit world and the cavalcade of new arrivals. Then. she hit the barrier. Everything went white.
Things were tense on Hangman’s Hill. With all the commotion, even the Dirt Nappers came up to see what was going on. As it turned out, letting bygones be bygones didn’t apply to the furious deceased faced with their murderer. Of course, no one could do anything to Reggie, but they sure tried. In the end, they settled on making his life a living hell, floating in a tight circle around him, wherever he went, the ghosts were a constant reminder of the sins he had committed in life. They took turns speaking to their deaths, repeating the stories to drive the man mad. Reggie never got so much as a moment’s rest.
Otis and Adam sat on the edge of the commotion, wondering if anything would come out of their great experiment. The native man had been able to cut himself free, but whether from fear or self-preservation, rode off immediately. To say they felt disappointed was an understatement, and had it not been for the entertainment that was Reggie’s misery, they might have become Dirt Nappers themselves.
“What do you think happened to her?” asked Adam one day as they watched white clouds passing by on the horizon. “She can’t be gone, right?”
“I don’t think I know anything worthwhile about this place,” replied Otis. They had watched Maggie shoot out of Hugo with such force that it was impossible to discern her form. She had been a streak of light, careening toward the barrier. When she hit, her energy dissipated, and she wasn’t seen again.
“Maybe she hit it so hard she got out.” Adam hoped it was true.
“I hope so, too. Either way, we both saw the grin on her face when you possessed that man and shot Reggie in the head. I like to think that would have put her at peace no matter where she ended up.”
Adam nodded. “I didn’t think I would, but I miss her.”
“Me too, kid.”
Weeks passed. The desert was implacable as always, but on the third week, a wind kicked up. Hoofbeats carried through the air as twenty riders appeared on the horizon. Every single soul that had been trapped on Hangman’s Hill came out to see who it was. At the lead of the riding party was the native man they had saved from certain death, and while Reggie and his men weren’t too happy about seeing him again, the rest of the group was elated.
As the group approached, horses fanned out in all directions and men with bows and arrows stood sentinel along the edges of the hill. From the center of the pack, an old woman emerged, garbed in elaborate clothing decorated with beads and quills. Her hair hung in long braids that swayed in the wind as she approached the base of the hanging tree. She ran her hands over the carvings and muttered words to herself while the others looked away. Most stood outside the edge of the hill, instinctively knowing the boundary.
It didn’t happen all at once. At first, there was a muted glow in the ground, like light reflecting off metal. The brightness grew, making its way to the sky. Otis felt warmth spreading through his ghostly limbs as the barrier above him dissipated. His spirit floated upward, not of his own accord, but he felt safety in the movement and didn’t fight it. He looked down and saw the other spirits experiencing something similar. Most were floating up toward the sky but several, like Reggie and his men, were earthbound.
“What the hell is this?!” yelled Reggie. “As if Hell couldn’t get any worse.” His spirt grew dark until it was almost pitch black as a shadow.
A pale horseman rode up from the edge of the hill, brandishing a shining scythe and approached those remaining on the ground.
Otis looked away but heard the screams of terror from below. He focused his mind on the sensation surrounding his body and the overwhelming sense of safety he felt. In the distance, he saw Adam moving upwards as well.
“All’s well that ends well then.” As he floated past the highest branch on Hangman’s Hill, he felt a familiar presence tugging at him. There were no words, but he knew the feeling of companionship and peace in the energy.
“Rest well, Maggie.” Otis smiled and the world went white.
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