Telling the story, John held Lois’s eyes for only a moment when he first started in, but then found he couldn’t do that anymore--not and continue, that is--and decided it was better to stare at the floor, keep things moving. It was time to let this all out.
He remembered the beat of his heart that night, so strong he could feel it in his chest, his head, and how it quickened as he pulled the rifle up to his shoulder and rested his cheek against the stock. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, a breath that every once and a while since returned him to the memory when he found himself taking another just like it. It was funny how even the little things could remind him of where he had been.
Everett had said, “C’mon, John, what’s the matter?” and John took another breath, the sound of Everett’s voice fading with the exhaled air, the only things in his conscious being the beat of his heart and the thing caught in Everett’s trap still wiggling around, trying to break free. This is it, he thought, and squeezed the trigger like his daddy had shown him; which was an irony when he thought about it years later, his father the perfect man of the cloth, so peaceful and contrite in the eyes of God but still handy with a rifle. In fact, it seemed the man was all too willing to go on a hunt. How his father enjoyed the acrid smell of gun powder and the stench of blood, like rusted iron, was a thought John would carry with him long after his father passed on.
The rifle kicked his shoulder, and his horse stirred at the crack of the shot. The thing in the trap jumped off the ground and fell back, wriggling once more before it stopped moving.
They sat a moment longer, until Everett broke the silence. “Damn,” he said, and there was no mistaking the awe in his voice. “I wasn’t sure you could do it from here.”
John felt a swell of pride. A grin pulled at the sides of his face. But all of that quickly faded as soon as Everett led them over to the trap--just some canvas bags sewn together it appeared upon closer inspection--and cut everything open to reveal what lay inside.
He remembered Lois’s father as a gentle man, full of grace, but with fierceness in his soul when provoked. What he saw now, though, was rendered more ghastly than he would have expected under the pale wash of the moonlight.
“What’ve you done?” John said, and his voice sounded weird, almost hollow and distant, like he was a stranger listening in on someone else’s conversation.
Everett stood. “What’ve I done? You were the one who shot--”
The body jerked, and Everett jumped back. He drew his pistol and fired three rounds, the body convulsing with each shot. John stared, not believing what he just saw, as Lois’ father twitched one more time and then din't move again.
“Well,” Everett said, “I guess we both done shot him now.” He twirled the gun on his finger and chuckled.
“I need to get some help,” John said.
“Help?” Everett pushed the front of his hat up. “He’s dead, you idiot. Ain’t nobody can help him now.”
John felt the anger burn at his face. “You son of--”
Everett raised the pistol. “Be careful what you say next, John.”
John shook his head. “You set me up.” And thinking about it now, it was the only way it could have happened. “I’m going to turn you in.”
Everett laughed. “You ain’t telling a soul. I mean, think about it. What’re the town folk gonna say? They know her daddy didn’t like me and also that you’re my best friend. We’ll both hang, brother John. And what’s your daddy gonna say then? He gonna preach up a sermon, maybe use you and me as two of his three points? And what’s more, when you feel the rope cinch around your neck and you step into the hereafter, what’s God gonna think about you? He gonna forgive and forget that you just shot a man?”
John didn’t say anything, haunted by the thought of his father and Lois, side-by-side, standing among a crowd of onlookers as the hangman placed a canvas bag over his head.
Back in the little one-room house, the sound of Everett’s voice fading--What’s God gonna think about you?--John finally glanced up, waiting.
Lois gripped the side of the table and slowly stood. Her eyes watered.
“I rode away,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. Everett was right. We’d both hang.” He looked down. “Everett stayed behind, though. He made it look like your father had been robbed and then shot by a couple of thieves. You know the rest, how the Sheriff and his posse rode out after men they would never find.”
He looked into her eyes and watched the pain well up like it did when the Sheriff returned the next day and gave the news. One hand covered her mouth, and Lois shook her head.
He said, “Lois, I’m so sorry,” and reached for her as she stepped away.
He wanted to kneel before her, beg her forgiveness; because maybe if she forgave him, then God would too. But he never made it that far. As he stood, the chair legs scraping across the wooden floor, the window shattered, and a pain stabbed at him like he had never felt before.