Authors: Tawni O'Dell
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For my Mom
OME QUICK BEFORE HE
starts looking for you!” my grandpa hissed in a frantic whisper from below my bedroom window, where he stood on an overturned wheelbarrow with outstretched arms while my father roared drunkenly downstairs.
All I could see were a pair of enormous hands with palms lined in black grime and speckled in blue scars reaching out of the darkness. I closed my eyes, scrambled over my windowsill, and lowered myself into their comforting grip.
“Shhh!” he said needlessly as we raced across the backyard out into the street and headed past the row of silent houses identical to my own, filled with occupants who had decided long ago to ignore this strange ritual of ours and the cause behind it.
Even in the dead of winter I’d never remember to put on my shoes, and by the time Tommy and I reached his house my stockinged feet would be wet and freezing. In summer my bare feet would be scraped and stinging. We’d arrive each time on his front porch, huffing and puffing, and would both take a moment to gaze down the hill at the distant rooftop of my father’s house and the dark window to the right. Earlier a lamp had glowed there with my mom’s favorite floral-printed scarf draped over the shade. This is how I signaled him for help on the nights when my father’s usual inability to notice my existence turned into the keen liquor-fueled observation that I should have never been born.
We crept through Tommy’s small front room past shelves and stacks of books, and the picture of my great-great-grandmother Fiona with her haunted eyes that followed me everywhere, and the mounted deer head whose antlers were hung with every kind of bric-a-brac until we arrived in the kitchen where we finally allowed ourselves to turn on a light and relax.
Tommy’s kitchen wasn’t any bigger or cleaner than the one in my father’s house or supplied with better food. It contained a lot of smells, but none of them were the appetizing kind. The overwhelming odors were those of something burning and a powerful lye-based soap favored by coal miners and mechanics that made my eyes water and the back of my throat ache. But despite these shortcomings, it was my favorite place in the world.
Without saying a word yet he’d take the milk bottle out of the fridge and fill a battered saucepan sitting on the stove. He’d keep watch over it, humming to himself, until it reached the required temperature, then he’d slop it into two mugs. Mine he’d fill all the way and add a generous amount of Hershey’s syrup. His own he’d fill only halfway and make up the difference with whiskey and a dollop of maple syrup.
On this night, after he placed my cup of cocoa in front of me, he told me a story I’d never forget. I’m sure this wasn’t the first time I had heard the tale. In fact, I’m sure he had told it to me when I was still in the womb, when he held me as a baby, when he sat in a lawn chair nursing a beer, watching me play in the driveway with my Hot Wheels—but tonight was the first time I really listened. The first time I remembered it.
“Boys, they were. The lot of them. Not much older than you the day they were hung,” he began.
I knew he was talking about the Nellie O’Neills. Men executed in the middle of our town was horrifying enough, but the thought of a bunch of first-graders swinging in the wind was too much to handle.
“They were six years old?” I squeaked.
He noticed my distress and gave my hand a reassuring pat.
“I’m sorry, Danny. At my age, a twenty-two-year-old seems like a child. They were young men. Very young men.”
He took a drink from his cup and continued.
“So there they were. Standing hunched and damp on the gallows in a drizzling rain, their wrists in manacles, gazing out at the shifting black sea of umbrellas shielding the spectators come to see their deaths. Decent folk, the newspapers called the onlookers, the kind who said their prayers and pinched their pennies and turned a blind eye to the sufferings of anyone not exactly like themselves.
“Nearly two hundred of these leading citizens dressed in their appropriately somber finery were packed inside the prison courtyard along with dozens of reporters and the families of the condemned, while outside the walls, a crowd of several thousand gathered in a shabby, sodden bovine mass of morbid curiosity and dumb bloodlust.”
“What’s bovine?” I interrupted him.
“They were like cows.”
“They were like wet cows.”
“Listen, son, I’m not going to talk down to you and use baby words, but you can’t keep breaking in on a man when he’s telling a story.”
I nodded and vowed not to ask any more questions. I’d make a mental list and look up the words tomorrow in the dictionary at school.
“This happened almost a hundred forty years ago. The government had abolished public executions, but private ones were still allowed. Bankers, merchants, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen of every stripe along with their wives and daughters were there by invitation only holding tickets that everyone had tried to get. They were a pretty pale blue in color and adorned with a small gold seal and the signature of Walker T. Dawes, the man himself.”
Everyone knew Walker Dawes. He owned all the mines and lived on a mountain outside of town in a mansion covered in windows that glittered on sunny days like the earth had been slashed open revealing crystal underneath instead of more black coal.
I wasn’t sure how he could’ve been alive back when the Nellies
were around and still be alive today. I chalked it up to the superhuman longevity of fairy-tale villains and comic book evil geniuses.
“Hanging was the cruelest way to kill someone. Too many things could go wrong. It wasn’t like a firing squad, where the victim could take comfort in the certainty that at least one of the bullets would prove instantly fatal, or even the guillotine, where his fate wouldn’t rest on the competence of a rope knotted by the unsure hands of men but in the dependable precision of a blade.
“If the Nellies were lucky, they’d been told, their necks would break and they’d lose consciousness and wouldn’t be present for their own deaths. If they were especially lucky, they’d die of shock the moment the trap door fell open and they wouldn’t have to endure even that much. But if they weren’t so lucky they would be slowly strangled while their hearts continued to beat and their heads continued to know, and luck was something they’d been short on lately.”
He stopped suddenly. My heart was racing and I was hanging on his every word. No one told these kinds of stories to little kids except for bigger kids and the ones around here were too dumb to make up anything this good.
“You know why they were being hung?” Tommy asked me.
This was long before I’d read about the Nellie O’Neills in history books, before I’d visit their museum in Nora Daley’s attic, before their alleged ghosts would star in paranormal reality TV shows, but
it was impossible to live in Lost Creek and not know something about them even as a young child. The town was full of their descendants, and the gallows where they had perished were still standing next to the little brick jail where they had spent their final days. I’d never been inside the prison courtyard, but the crossbars could be seen rising ominously over the crumbling stone wall, their shape and meaning not exactly clear to me, yet they filled me with a sick dread nonetheless. Like the first time I saw my mother standing by the kitchen sink, her eyes as empty as those of a corpse, softly, methodically stabbing holes in a raw chuck roast with a screwdriver, I knew I should be afraid but I didn’t know why.
“They murdered someone,” I answered him.
“They murdered two someones,” he corrected me. “Two of their bosses. And they cut off a man’s ear and cut out the tongue of a priest and were also responsible for a lot of random head bashing.”
“Why did they do all that?”
“Back then the conditions in the mines were horrible. Beyond imagining.”
A clammy invisible hand began tickling the base of my spine then traveled to the back of my neck where it grabbed hold and slowly began to choke the air out of me. The mines frightened me much more than a gallows ever could. I was claustrophobic and afraid of the dark, and the thought of toiling in cramped tunnels deep inside the earth gave me violent nightmares. I had never told Tommy what my dreams were about because I was ashamed, but I used to share them with my mom. She tried to comfort me by telling me I wouldn’t have to work in the mines because I was smart and smart people could go to college and get good jobs. I clung to this assurance, but at the same time it didn’t make complete sense to me. Tommy was smart and he had worked in the mines his entire life.
“The Nellies were a group of miners who tried to get conditions in the mines changed, but they were pitted against one of the richest and most powerful men in the country who didn’t want anything changed. They tried peaceful methods at first, but things turned violent on both sides. Some people say the Nellies were right to act the way they did. Others say they were wrong. Some say they were saints, the American labor movement’s first martyrs. Others say they were thugs, unpatriotic union organizers who turned to murder to further their cause.”
“Who’s right? Were the Nellies good guys or bad guys?”
“One man’s hero is another man’s terrorist. You’ll have to make that decision for yourself someday when you’re older.”
“But they killed somebody. They had to pay for their crimes,” I pointed out.
His blue eyes flashed the way they always did when he had a secret, their youthful sparkle as happily unexpected in the crags of his face as finding something shiny on the side of an old dirt road.
“Yes, but not all of them were killers. Ten men were executed. Only two were guilty.”
“How could that happen?”
“Walker Dawes controlled everything. The police, the courts, the press, some say even the governor. He could do whatever he wanted and no one could stop him. By killing all those men without even proving that they were guilty, he showed everyone how much power he had and made sure no one would ever stand up to him again.
“James ‘Prosperity’ McNab, Peter Tully, Kenny Kelly, and Henry ‘Footloose’ McAnulty were the first to go that day. Does the name McNab sound familiar to you?”
I didn’t answer fast enough.
“It’s my name,” Tommy went on. “He was my grandfather. Do you know what that means? He was your great-great-grandfather. Do you know what that means?”
He glanced in the direction of the living room. I knew what this meant. Fiona was Prosperity McNab’s wife.
This was too much for me to absorb all at once. Tommy seemed to sense this and plunged on with his story rather than give me time to start asking the dozens of questions that were forming in my head.
“They wore black suits, and they carried crucifixes. Peter Tully, who was the youngest, only nineteen, also carried a lace handkerchief his mother had made for him and given him the night before when she came to say good-bye.
“They knelt and Father Daley read the prayers for the dying over the sobbing of the mothers, while the fathers worried their hats in their dirty hands and let their bewildered stares wander anywhere but to the gallows. The priest placed his hand on their bowed heads, blessing and absolving them, and ordered them to rise. They kept praying while the ropes were placed around their necks and the hoods were pulled down over their faces, and they were still praying when the floor dropped open. People said their lips could be seen moving beneath the hoods.
“My grandfather was still alive when they cut him down. This fact on its own was nothing astounding. Of the ten they hung that day, four were fortunate enough to have their necks broken after the drop was
sprung. The other six were left swinging, their chained wrists jerking up and down and their bound feet kicking, while the ropes slowly choked the life out of them.
“Prosperity’s heart was still beating after twenty minutes, the longest of any of them. When they laid his body on the wet ground and the sheriff took off his hood, they say his eyes bulged and his tongue stuck out of his mouth much to the terror of the superstitious Irishmen crowded around him. Some said his swollen lips moved as if he were trying to speak. Some claimed he did speak. Some heard him say, “Fi,” some heard “vengeance,” a word in English he probably didn’t know. Regardless of what he said or if he spoke at all, the legend of a not-entirely-dead Prosperity McNab was born.
“Fiona was there that day and she made their son, Jack, come along, too. Everyone told her not to bring him because he was so young, but she insisted he must know the truth in all its ugliness. He must see the murder of his father so he would never forget it.”
“How old was he?” I asked.
“Now,” Tommy answered, shaking a finger at me. “
was your age and already a breaker boy. Just a few months earlier Prosperity had taken him to the breaker room for the first time and sat him down among thirty other filthy lads silently separating coal from the slate that flowed past them in a black stream down a chute. How it must have broke his heart to do that to his little boy. He knew never a laugh or a smile or a single word would ever pass between them as they picked away their little lives, hunched over until their spines began to curve and their fingers began to look like the claws of a crow. They never had a chance to go to school or know anything of the world. They had no games. They never played. When their workday was over, they were too tired for that. Their bodies and minds were acquainted with nothing except the difference between slate and coal.”