GALLOWS

Tim Tucker

Frank Peyton stood upon the Arlington Memorial Bridge, his pulse as rapid as the waters of the Potomac River below him. His hands were behind his back, the cold teeth of handcuffs digging into his flesh and a makeshift noose swayed lazily in the early morning air above him, all frayed electrical wiring knotted into its infamous shape. It was attached to a mechanical wench that served as a drop mechanism and fixed between two lamp post. His executioners flanked him – two private soldiers of the Federal Army directed by a sergeant who had probably been a dentist or school teacher in simpler times. Indeed, the liberal military code of this day and age cared not for who wore the ranks of command and cared even less for who wore the noose around their neck, as evident by a kindly gentleman such as Frank having his neck in a ensnared.

Sentinels at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as "off-hand", or at the ready, an efficient and deadly position. It wasn't their duty to know or care what was happening at the center of the bridge; they merely guarded the two ends that traversed the water.

Beyond one of the sentinels, Arlington National Cemetery loomed, an overgrown rotting jungle. Arlington House, formerly the Robert E. Lee Memorial, now served as a barracks for the Federal Army where many of its members acted as spectators for the execution. They no doubt anticipated the death of a proclaimed traitor with stoic glee as they formed a ring around the heavily forested perimeter of the barracks. Not a man of them moved, as still as the equestrian sculptures that adorned the bridge. If the soldiers presence wasn't enough, an M1 Abrams tank dominated the center of their ring, an avalanche of weathered steel and heavy weaponry. A lieutenant stood at the right of the tank, looking every bit as solemn as the soldiers under his command. After all, death is a dignitary that must be received with the utmost of respect, even by those most familiar with him.

The two private soldiers stepped aside as the sergeant stepped forward. :"We are gathered here amongst God and country-men for the execution of Franklin Alexander Peyton, who is charged with treason of the highest order; conspiracy to sabotage -" The sergeants voice faded under the roar of the Potomac as he tried to fixate his last thoughts upon his wife and six year old son. He gazed longingly to the roiling river below. The water, touched to gold by the early morning sun trudged fiercely against the distant banks as a brooding mist garrisoned its way through far off thickets of trees along those remote shores, the shores of freedom, as unattainable to him now as Shangri La..."I said do you have any last words Mr. Peyton?"

Time seemed to slip almost palpably through the air and even though he wore no watch, analogue or otherwise, he could almost hear the seconds slip by with the force of a blacksmiths hammer upon the world itself. When he spoke, his voice was strong, unshakable. "What's left to say? I'm dead and so is America."

The sergeant clicked his tongue shamefully. "Even with your last breath you draw ire," He slid the noose over Frank's head and made a point to clench the coils together so tight that for a moment he risked spoiling the spectacle of a public execution by killing the condemned too early. "Let's see how bold you talk with a stretched neck."

The preparations now complete, the sergeant turned to the captain and saluted, who in turn saluted him back. Frank closed his eyes to steel himself, the image of his family burned into his minds eye with a clarity so vivid he could have reached out and touched their faces if it wasn't for the handcuffs. From the darkness, a hand grasped his shoulder, "Go with God now son."

Richmond, VA

Before such audacious displays of entrapment had put his neck in a noose, Frank Peyton enjoyed a beer at his favorite watering hole in Shockoe Bottom. Before the war, Frank was a modest civil engineer for the city of Richmond with a white picket fence and a secure pension. Now, he was a man walking a perilous line between the banal and that of a rebel sympathizer.

Granted, he was not the gung-ho tip of the spear revolutionary that put his life on the line everyday in war torn cities and suburbs, but he did what he could. No task was too humble for him to perform in aide of the men and women who fought against oppression, and no adventure too perilous if its success meant reclaiming the America he once knew.

Frank sipped at his beer contently and took in his surroundings. Though the war had ravaged most of the east coast as far as Boston, smaller and poorer areas around Richmond were spared heavy fighting in favor of strained resources such as gas and fresh water. Even though the bar was crowded for a Monday night, a reserved buzz crackled the air like a swarm of apprehensive wasps, and the few TV monitors that weren't smashed or displayed 'NO SIGNAL' showcased embedded journalist along the Hudson River, humanitarian relief for Florida hurricane refugees, and typical doom and gloom; the days of watching the New England Patriots on the tube were long gone.

The bar stool next to him clattered, and an old man sat with a sigh of great exertion "A whiskey and coke please. You can hold the ice. And the spit," he told the bartender.

"Coming right up."

"Would you look at this lovely mess," the old man said, his gaze upon the monitors. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to see war on American soil, let alone against our own people!"

"Well keep on dreaming grandpa and we'll leave the fighting to the real patriots left in this country."

"Bah! Don't be so quick to cast stones lad. Before this war I was a carpenter couple of months short of my retirement. Never killed a man then, hell never ever entertained the thought. My how times have changed."

The bartender returned with his drink, "here you are sir."

"Gratitude m'boy." The old man tipped his cup to Frank and gulped down some of his drink. "We need something to fight for more than ever now. Just what are you fighting for Mr. Peyton?

If the buzz of the beer didn't get his attention this mysterious old stranger surely had. "And just who are you?"

The old man smiled. "One of the real patriots sonny, and if you are too, you'll hear me out." He leaned closer to Frank, the scent of smoke and whiskey strong. "The future of the Resistance Movement hangs on the next forty eight hours. A federal convoy is set to cross through Richmond, a little gift from the west coast. I'm talking the schematics and models for MQ 1 Predator Drones, nasty little buggers that kill indiscriminately."

"And what do you want me to do about these drones? Shoot 'em out the air with a sling-shot?"

"Like I said, the future of the Resistance Movement. If these things make it into the air they're gonna target men and women in their homes, with their families, their children. Not only the human toll would be devastating, but they'll cripple key infrastructures, our supplies. We simply can't have that now can we?"

"So what do you want from me? How can I help?"

The old man pulled out a tattered map and a pen from his jacket and spread the map upon the counter, "They're gonna transport them outta Richmond straight for Langley on the rail lines. We need your help in sabotaging the tracks."

Frank reflected over the map for some moments before circling a thin line of matrices leading from Richmond, VA to Langley, VA. "Last years flooding left heaps of driftwood against structural points here, here, and here." He circled three separate intervals along the rail lines. "Several well placed explosions on these struts would ignite the wood like kindle, the tracks won't stand a chance."

The old man finished off the last of his whiskey and slipped the map back into his jacket. "You've just done a great deal for your country, I thank you."

"You still haven't told me who you really are."

He rose and placed a comforting hand on Frank's shoulder. "I'm one of the good guys." And with that he was hobbling towards the door.

Outside the bar, the old man produced a small gadget from his jacket, about the size of a cellphone, and activated it. A ghostly neon luminescence illuminated his weathered face as a red blip pulsed on the screen. He flipped a switch on the side of the device and the electronic voice of Frank A. Peyton drifted into the night air. The old man smiled.

For one brief, glorious moment Frank was weightless, the waters of the Potomac rushing up to greet him, and then the horrific screech of metal from above, the sudden, jerky stop that came too soon to be lethal but sent a poignant stab of pain through his neck that shot through his limbs all the same followed by the sensation of suffocating.

As the air seeped from his lungs, Frank could just make out the sergeant against the spinning sky, gesticulating wildly and shouting commands. Frank oscillated slowly like some vast, morbid pendulum, snaky tendrils of darkness threatening to steal his vision as the intellectual part of his being was replaced by the torment of raw, primal pain. The sunlight itself seemed brighter, slowly casting away the shadows of his periphery until there was nothing but the guiding, blinding light and for all intents and purposes Frank Peyton was as one dead-

-Then with a terrible suddenness the gallows above gave way and he was falling, falling until he broke through the surface of the water with a shattering splash, nothing but cold darkness and a frightening roaring in his ears. Thought was restored to him and their was no additional strangulation, but his problems were only getting worse: his hands were still bound behind his back and his neck was still snared by the noose. To die of both hanging and drowning in the same day. Must be the luck of the Irish.

He opened his eyes and through the haze of darkness could make out a gleam of light above, distant and inaccessible. Completely at the mercy of the raging river Frank struggled to slip out of the cuffs, flexing and contorting his arms with a splendid effort that not even Houdini himself could match-

-Eureka!

Frank's right hand slid from the cuff like a glove. His arms now parted, he beat the water with quick downward strokes until he burst from the rapids. His chest expanded convulsively and he expelled the great drought of air in his lungs with a shriek. Clawing at the noose still upon his neck, Frank tore it away and cast it aside, the thrashing rope undulating wildly like a spiteful eel before disappearing into the current.

Now in full possession of his body, Frank drifted past densely forested banks, the morning sun shining prismatically through foliage and branches. Suddenly, a trio of sharp reports cracked the air and struck the water just inches from him, spattering him with spray. Another trio of cracks followed and craning his neck around Frank could make out the silhouettes of soldiers on the bridge, gesticulating wildly, carbines aimed in his direction.

Frank dove under the water as deep as he could but he could still hear the muffled thunder of bullets above and see their contrails oscillating slowly downward.

As he surfaced, gasping for air, he saw that he was further down river closer to safety and he began to vigorously swim with the current. An appalling splash within two yards of him sent a sheet of water sloshing over him, blinding him, strangling him.

It seemed that the tank had joined to fray.

As he shook his head free of the unwarranted shower he heard a deflected shell soar through the air ahead, smashing the branches in the forest beyond.

And then the vertigo. He whirled round and round, like a children's top, the water, the banks, the forest, the now distant bridge, fort, and men all blurred, all nothing but colors. He was caught in a whirlpool, revolving at a velocity that threatened to bring up his last meal. The vortex finally regurgitated him upon the gravel of a nearby river bank and for some moments Frank just rested there, cold, wet. Alive.

Frank struggled to his hands and knees, dug his fingers into the sand,and threw it over himself as if they were in fact the diamonds and rubies of Shangri La. The trees upon the bank were giant eucalyptus and he took in their fragrance with a keen scent, the smell of freedom, and Frank was content to remain in that little slice of enchantment forever.

A whine and tumultuous commotion among the branches overhead roused him from his romantic notions. The denied tank operator had sent him a final farewell. Frank sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank and slipped into the forest.

All day he traveled. The forest he traversed seemed indiscernible; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a game trail. He had no idea that such a wilderness existed in his backyard and there was something unnerving in the revelation.

By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, and famished but the thought of his family drove him forward. At last he found his way to a deserted interstate, the faded green road sign above reading "RICHMOND: 10 MILES"

And so he continued his procession, step by step, left foot right foot, his eyes fixated on the faded road lines that terminated at the horizon and continued for only God knew how long. His neck was horribly bruised by the rope and each breath he took was a labored struggle, as if his neck were still in a vice. His eyes eyes felt congested, his tongue swollen with thirst, and he shambled forward on the pads of his worn feet. He could barely find the strength to keep his thumb up for the few cars that roamed this desolate stretch of road, and he could scarcely blame them for passing him up: he looked as if he were in a delirium.

An indeterminable amount of time later Frank was keeled over against the barricade. Despite his suffering, he must have fallen asleep because a station wagon from times long past pulled over along side him. A flutter of auburn hair and his wife smiled with ineffable beauty from the drivers seat. He reached out to her, her name but a whimper on his cracked, bleeding lips. Frank grew lighter, less dense and then he was drifting back towards the blinding, guiding light, the last of his breath escaping in a gurgling rattle from the noose still snared about his neck, then all was darkness.

Franklin Alexander Peyton was dead, his fever dream now over. His body, strangled to death by the botched noose, gently swayed to and fro beneath the gallows of the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

THE END