The International Writers Magazine

First Chapters: Chapter 13: Poor Cottontop
Phillip E. Hardy (an extract from his novel)

At noontime on the following day, Sheriff Maynard arrived at Ellison's jail cell to escort him to his execution. Mounts, was having consul with Reverend Price, who was still attempting to save his soul.

The sheriff looked grimly at Mounts, withdrawing a death warrant out of his back pocket. ‘Let's to get this over with,’ he said somberly.

Ellison looked up nervously at Maynard, continuing his puff his cigar. This was a farewell gift that Reverend had brought for him. For obvious reasons, Mounts was a wreck. He had not slept a wink the night before. Price assured him that very few men could or would want to sleep, the night before they're about to die. With the preacher standing alongside him, the prisoner was escorted out of the Pikeville jail for his trip to the scaffold. Sheriff Maynard shackled Ellison's feet together, as well as handcuffing his hands behind him. The sun was a glowing hot ball of fire, baking the ground like a brick oven. It was perfect weather for the spectacle that was about to unfold. Like the poor souls during the French revolution, Mounts was placed in a wagon sitting atop his own wooden coffin.

It was Tuesday afternoon and the streets of Pikeville were deserted. Stores were locked up like it was a holiday with the town's activity at a standstill. Almost all of the town's inhabitants and newly arrived guests were now gathered at the outskirts of the community, patiently awaiting the appearance of the condemned man. The wagon carrying Ellison Mounts was surrounded by thirty militiamen and four sheriff's deputies. With twelve mounted men at the front of the procession, twelve at the rear and five on either side of the wagon, Maynard was confidant that nothing would prevent him from delivering his prisoner.

Riding along in the death wagon was Reverend Price. He sat on the coffin right next to Ellison, with an opened bible. He began to read Psalm twenty-three, in a soft comforting tone. It occurred to the preacher that he didn't need to have the bible open. He knew this prayer by heart. It was surely appropriate for Mounts, as he was clearly headed into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

When Price finished the Lord's Prayer, he implored Ellison.
‘Boy, you still have time. Don't go before the Lord without being saved’
‘Do I parson? Do I have time? I'm scared of dying, real scared. Can you save me?’ Ellison asked. He started to cry while his face looked longingly for an answer.
’Yes you can be saved. I can't save you, but with his infinite grace the Lord can. Bow your head now son and come to Jesus. Tell him that you want to take him into your heart; then when you go before the God who stands in judgement of all, you'll be forgiven.’ Ellison quickly complied with Price's instructions, praying in desperation for the forgiveness of a God he had previously denied.
‘I'm still awful scared reverend’, he said trembling.
’I know you are. The difference is now you have the Lord walking beside you. He'll be standing on the scaffold with you. His hand will lift you up to the place of eternal life’ Price assured him.
’He will?’
’Yes my son, he will.’ The wagon slowly drove through the main streets of Pikeville, then past the houses at the edge of town. It proceeded out on the hard dirt road towards the small valley where the gallows stood patiently waiting. Desperate thoughts surged through Ellison's brain, like the gush of a raging river. He thought about how short his life had been which caused his breath to become short and his heart to pound faster. He kept recalling the words of the parson. ‘The Lord will be with you, he will guide you into his kingdom.’

In spite of finding salvation, Ellison contemplated and feared the pain he would endure on his remaining time on earth. It was only minutes away from the moment when his neck would snap like a twig. That was only if the noose was placed properly, for a clean break. What if he dangled there for a while and choked to death slowly? This was the thought that plagued him. Cottontop couldn't believe his dull green eyes when he saw the eight thousand spectators, covering the hills around the gallows. There they sat perched like vultures waiting for something to die. This was the moment that they had all come to see. The curious, dreadful sight of witnessing a man die.

In spite of the cruel reality of waiting to witness an execution, the throng of humanity was giddy as if they were going to the circus. Two clever food vendors were on the scene, selling peanuts and soda pop to the hungry crowd. Some spectators even brought picnic lunches, laying inviting blankets out on the side of the hill.

The wagon with the procession of militia guarding the condemned man finally came to a halt. The twenty-minute ride was over. To Ellison it passed like seconds. He looked up to see the solidly constructed murdering monster that awaited him. A twenty-two foot high, wooden fence had been built around the scaffold. The wall of lumber was configured as a forty foot square, leaving ample room inside the structure for Pikeville dignitaries. Inside the fenced area were a dozen folding wooden chairs, where the Mayor and members of the city council were seated. They all agreed, that the contractors had done a first rate job building the gallows and fence.

Sheriff Maynard motioned to his men fix bayonets on their rifles and to surround the perimeter of the execution sight. He, along with the remaining six deputies escorted Cottontop into the killing structure. He stood for a moment glancing up above the fence, on to the hill that faced the entrance of the compound. Among the thousands of eyes that fell upon him, Ellison could not extract a shred of pity or comfort.

Alongside the condemned man, Reverend Price spoke loudly in prayer, attempting to calm him. None of Ellison's family or friends was allowed to be inside the complex. Like everyone else they watched from the surrounding hills. Maynard walked over to the mayor, asking for his permission to commence with the execution. ‘Proceed sir, this crowd has waited long enough’ replied the mayor. The Pikeville Sheriff quickly stepped over to Mounts, informing him it was time. The tense guards awkwardly turned the prisoner around, helping him ascend the ten steps up to the hangman's noose. Ellison walked dauntlessly up the wooden tiers, turning to face the mass of so called humanity. Right behind the condemned man, Price walked up the steps and firmly grasped his right arm. ‘Fear not, the Lord is with you and I'm with you’ he said, stepping down from the scaffold. Maynard stood with three other guards on the platform of the large gallows. He formally read the charges for which Mounts had been convicted.

Deputy Yost and another guard had the condemned man positioned over the center of the trap door, placing the large noose around his neck.
‘Don't worry boy this is an art form and I know how to do it; you won't feel a thing’ Yost told Ellison.
’Are you sure?’ Mounts asked, as tears welled up in his eyes. The deputy gently patted his shoulder.
‘Sure I'm sure.’
’Ellison Mounts, The Commonwealth of Kentucky has found you guilty of the charge of murder in the first degree. The sentence of death mandated by the Sixteenth District Court shall be carried out immediately, this day February 18, 1890. Have you anything to say before the sentence is carried out?’ asked Maynard.

Deputy offered the condemned man a blindfold, which he declined. Ellison Mounts stood for a moment, looking around the hills at the throng of morbid spectators. Dressed in new jeans, with a beautiful hand embroidered blue shirt, his blonde mane blew backward from the breeze.
‘I ain't gonna make no speech; but I hope all my friends remember me and that I'll get to see them in heaven. I want to thank the sheriff for being kind to me and the Parson for saving my soul.’ For one last moment of spiritual reassurance, Ellison looked down at Reverend Price. As tears began to fill his eyes the preacher nodded back at him, and mouthed the words ‘God Bless you’, which comforted the doomed man.
‘That's all,’ Ellison said, nodding to the sheriff. Maynard walked over to the large handle that was built to spring the trap door of the deadly scaffold. Just as he stood poised to pull the lever forward, Ellison yelled to the surrounding crowd.
‘They made me do it! It was the Hatfield's that made me do it!’ For that moment, it was quiet enough to hear the grass grow in the valley.

In one swift, powerful thrust, Maynard pulled the lever forward, activating the precisely weighted pulley, dropping Ellison's large frame down through the trap door. As his neck snapped, the large crowd sounded out a loud, collective gasping noise. His feet bobbled for a few seconds but he died quickly as Yost had promised. Ellison's lifeless body hung for about ten minutes, as a reminder to anyone who might consider themselves above the law in Kentucky. The crowd of people began to slowly disperse. Their ghoulish curiosity, the desire to see someone die, had been fulfilled without a hitch. The heavy, lifeless body was cut down and loaded into the flimsy wooden coffin that been supplied by the town of Pikeville. He was to be buried at a pauper's graveyard, just yards away from the place of his execution, on the hill overlooking the gallows.

Fifteen minutes later, Sheriff Maynard surveyed the landscape around the stark plank wall. The huge crowd was gone and heading back to Pikeville or their homes in other surrounding towns. The undertaker and his assistant placed the lid on Ellison simple pine coffin and proceeded to nail it shut. Maynard jerked a whiskey flask from his jacket pocket and took a stiff drink. This whole affair had caused him days of stress and he was glad it was over. He walked over to the hill where the undertakers had carried the body. He took another swig of the strong bourbon as he watched the two men hastily cover the coffin with dirt. ‘Poor dumb bastard’ he mumbled.

© Phillip E. Hardy March 2006

For more information about his now completed novel please contact the author at the above email address.

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