He just celebrated his tenth birthday when it happened. He was playing quietly with Hoagie, his friend since as
far back as he could remember. Suddenly out of the dusk, six white robed figures appeared carrying torches.
The figures converged on Hoagie and dragged him along the ground. Hoagie kicked and fought, but the men
were bigger and stronger.
At the edge of the property stood an old oak tree. Two of the figures produced a rope, threw it over the lower
limb and tied it to the trunk of the tree. The other end had been fashioned into a noose.
The robed men tightened the noose around Hoagie's neck. Freeing the other end of the rope from the tree, the
men tugged hard lifting the small black figure off the ground.
The boy watched with throat tightening horror as his friend kicked and writhed at the end of the rope. He tried
to free himself to go to his friend, but rough hands circled his neck, holding him back. He wanted to scream
and rage and strike out against the monsters. But he could only stand there, unable to move, held down by an
unyielding force. His head reeled in disbelief and unspeakable terror at the atrocity unfolding before him.
It was over in minutes, but it seemed an eternity to the boy. The light from the torches dimly illuminated the
swinging figure, throwing grotesque shadows that moved as though they had a life of their own.
The man who had been holding the boy pushed him rudely away, causing him to stumble and fall to the hard
"Let that be a lesson to you," he said. "We don't like you takin' up with the likes of him. They belong in their
Then they were gone. The boy slowly got to his feet and stood shivering uncontrollably, although the night
was warm. Immobilized by fear and disgust, he closed his eyes against the sight of his friend. He wasn't even
able to cry.
Slowly the shivering subsided. It had grown dark, mercifully, as the boy could no longer see the tree. He
turned and walked, slowly at first, toward home. Then, with a cry that emerged of its own volition from his
throat, he broke into a run.
It happened in late spring, 1915. Over forty years ago.
* * *
Pirate's Hill was nothing more than a rise in the otherwise flat, barren landscape of Cayuga County. An
outcropping of granite, weathered by eons of heavy seasonal rains, dominated the hill. In the late afternoon
sun, the shadows on the granite formed a crude skull and crossbones.
The "Hanging Tree", on the other hand, earned its name back in the nineteenth century when it was used for
hanging horse thieves and cattle rustlers. Sitting on the top of Pirate's Hill the old, oak tree later became the
site for lynching runaway slaves, and after that, any black who happened to be around when the locals were
in the mood for a little fun. The original tree was long gone, but another, sturdier tree grew in its place, serving
as a reminder of Pirate's Hill unsavory reputation. Standing tall, with crooked, ugly limbs stretched across a
harsh forbidding sky, the hanging tree became a shameful symbol of the atrocities that had been committed
Unfortunately, the tree was still in use-not as frequently as in the past, but nevertheless with enough
regularity to make decent people in the area shake their heads in disgust. Most looked the other way, and in
their silence gave sanction to the horrors being committed in their back yard.
On this August morning in 1955, the tree claimed another victim.
The figure hanging on the end of a rope, head at a surreal angle from the body, twisted slowly in the hot
summer air. Will, his eyes narrowed to slits, contemplated the obscenity and then added his own.
"Fuck. What sick bastards did this?"
It was not a question, but an oath, uttered with loathing and disgust.
Joe Harper, Will's deputy and in many ways his conscience, shrugged, knowing that no answer was expected
The silence, except for the calling of a crow somewhere in the field beyond the hanging tree, was mute
testimony to the grotesque scene. Two uniformed officers busied themselves gathering evidence and taping off
Will Lawson, Sheriff of Cayuga County, approached the tree, hands on his hips, head cocked. He pushed his
hat back on his head and silently studied the body. The man appeared to be in his early twenties. He was slim,
but muscular, with no sign of injuries. His ebony skin, dulled in death, was in sharp contrast to the brilliant
Will grunted and took a knife from his pocket.
"Give me a hand here," he said.
He sawed the rope and the two men gently lowered the body to the ground. Will stooped and inspected the
face, distorted, but handsome even in death.
"Know him?" he asked Joe.
"Nope. Don't think he's a local guy."
"He's just a kid," Will said, as much to himself as to Joe. "Bastards, I bet there's more than one involved."
Joe nodded agreement.
"Usually is," he said simply.
"These guys are cowards," Will said. "Won't start a fight unless they're sure there are enough of 'em to win. He
placed a finger on the dead man's biceps. "I guess this guy could put up a struggle that would take at least four
others to string him up." He touched the rope around the victim's hands. "Tied him up and let him swing. Sick
He sat back on his haunches and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Lighting one, he blew smoke into
the humid air and sighed. He shook his head to clear it of the image.
Joe, reading Will's thoughts as if they were his own, patted him on the shoulder, "It's okay," he said. "Don't let
it get you."
Will shrugged him off.
"What is it about skin color that brings out the worst in a man? Don't they look any deeper? Cut this guy open
and his insides would look like yours and mine."
Joe shuffled his feet.
"You're right about that, Will. But we're dealing with ignorance here. These sickos think that they have the
right to do this, just because they have light skin."
"Ignorance," Will repeated. "I'm afraid it's more than that. There's a cure for ignorance. Education. Bigotry is
beyond that. Ain't a school inthe world that can educate a bigot."
An engine whined in the distance, laboring along the dirt road and climbing the slope. The coroner's van came
to a stop next to the squad car and three men emerged. Mack, the coroner, sauntered over to Will and Joe. He
studied the body with a professional eye.
"He got a name?"
"John Doe," Will said. "But I suppose the bastards who did this would object to us usin' a white man's name."
"No ID on the body?"
"Didn't look. But I don't expect there is."
Mack searched the pockets, found nothing.
Will grunted, "Bunch of rednecks got boozed up, decided to kill a black man just to show off for their buddies.
They'll go back to wherever they came from and brag about how this kid cried and begged for his life, even if
He grunted again and spat. "Ideas? No; could have been any of a hundred. Don't know the vic. Maybe once
we get an ID we can..."
He didn't finish the sentence. Shaking his head, he turned and walked slowly down the hill to the car. Joe
followed him with his eyes.
Turning to Mack, he said, "Will's always like this with senseless killings. He's funny that way. A crime of
passion he don't get riled so much." He turned and spat. "He saw his best friend hanged by a bunch of KKK.
The kid was black. Like this kid." Joe nodded toward the dead man. "The bastards made Will watch while they
strung his friend up. That was a long time ago. But I reckon you don't get over something like that."
Mack shrugged, "Guess not. But in my line of work a corpse is a corpse. Don't matter to me what color or why
it's dead; can't afford to get personal with 'em." He studied the body for several moments and then turned to
the two men attending the body. "Zip him up and put him in the van."
It wasn't the first lynching to happen since Will became sheriff. And, he knew, it wouldn't be the last. And here
in Cayuga County, lynchings were accomplished with impunity. For as long as he had been sheriff, almost
twenty years, there had never been a conviction. And the judges, as much as the juries, were responsible for
this. It didn't matter how much evidence there was. Hell, the guy could be caught in the act and get off. He
didn't even need a good lawyer. He only needed white skin and twelve like-minded "peers". And they were in
abundance in this town.
Now, nearly a hundred years since the Civil War, we were still fighting. When would it end? Will shook his
head, threw his cigarette on the ground and put the heel of his boot to it with ferocity much greater than the
The evidence found at the scene of the hanging was slight but useful. Impressions made of the tire tracks
could be used to trace the car or truck that made them. The victim's fingernails held fragments of skin and
blood that would be analyzed. Once this was done and a suspect arrested, the evidence would be presented to
the court. It would be an empty gesture, Will knew. But it would give Will a name. That was all he wanted or
expected. He would take it from there.
The trial did indeed take place. The defendant, a young man named "Bugs" Jackson, explained the tire tracks
and DNA with a self assurance and arrogance that made Will bristle.
"Yeah, I was there. tried to help the guy. That's when he scratched me. But I couldn't do nothin', so I left
before anything bad happened."
"So you were not present when the lynching took place?" his lawyer said.
It was a leading question, but the prosecution offered no objection.
"Yeah. That's what I said; I didn't have nothin' to do with it. That nig...that poor guy was puttin' up a hell of a
fight, though. I figured he could handle hisself. There wasn't nothin' I could do."
Will shook his head at the testimony. In the next row a black couple sat hunched together. The woman was
crying softly, while the man patted her gently, never taking his eyes from Jackson.
It took the jury less than thirty minutes to bring back a not guilty verdict.
Jackson walked out of the courtroom a free man, accompanied by pats on the back and cheers from an
appreciative public. His drinking buddies, and in Will's mind, fellow lynchers, herded him into a pickup where
they disappeared among squealing tires and a cloud of dust. Most likely to their favorite watering hole where
they would drink and brag about their exploits and celebrate Jackson 's acquittal. Watching the scene, Will felt
sick and even ashamed for being a part of the spectacle. The only difference between Jackson and the crowd of
admirers was that Jackson killed a man. Cheering and encouraging this piece of trash was another obscenity,
almost as bad as the crime itself. Of course, there was no law against it. Free country, free speech and such.
Well, free speech for some folks at least.
So the killing of Fred Robinson would go unpunished. Jackson never revealed who else was there and he was
never asked by the DA to identify them. Will supposed this was a good thing in the long run. Further arrests
and trials would end up the same way. So the taxpayers were saving money by letting the matter drop.
Robinson, after all, was not important. He didn't even live in the area. He was simply a college student passing
through on his way home for the weekend before starting the fall term at the university. He was also a Korean
War veteran with a silver star and a purple heart, but this was never brought out in court, not that it would
have made a difference.
Well, if the legal system protected these animals from the justice they deserved, Will thought, he would make
his own laws.
Back home from the debacle he had just seen at the courthouse, Will hurried to his workshop. He took two
lengths of sturdy hemp rope, a garden stake and a hammer and threw them in the trunk of the squad car. He
slammed the trunk lid shut, got in the car and slipped out of the driveway into the midmorning traffic. He
jockeyed the car into the left turn lane and headed north toward Pirate's Hill.
The Green Hat Bar was on the edge of town. The old building was losing its fight with termites and dry rot. A
derby hat cut from plywood and painted a garish green, leaned precariously on the roof, swaying with the
slightest breeze. A neon sign outlined the hat, flickering on and off, threatening to quit completely. Will pulled
into the parking lot, eased the squad car into a parking place next to Jackson 's pickup truck and went inside.
The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of cheap beer. In the far corner a bubbling jukebox
pumped out "Heartbreak Hotel". Nobody was paying attention to it. They didn't come for the music, after all.
The bar was mostly patronized by the locals looking for fellow believers in their cause, as well as female
companionship that could be had for the price of a few drinks.
Will found a stool at the end of the bar and lifted his lanky frame onto the seat. He ordered a beer. No glass.
He drank from the bottle.
Swiveling to face the room, he surveyed the boisterous crowd, searching for Jackson. At a table near the back
of the room he saw him, surrounded by a crowd of admirers, many of whom he had seen in court. Jackson
was fondling a bleached blonde who appeared to be no older than fourteen.
Will set the bottle on the bar, stood up and hitched his thumbs in his belt. Crossing over to the table where
Jackson and the others were seated, he stopped and pointed to the girl.
"How old are you?" he asked.
The girl looked up and frowned. "Who are you?"
"I asked you a question."
The girl started to say something, but Jackson silenced her with a wave of his hand. He looked at the others
with a smirk and then turned his attention to Will.
"Well, if it ain't Sheriff Lawson. I saw you in court the other day. I bet you thought they was goin' to get me
for killin' that nigger."
His smirk widened and his eyes searched the group seeking approval. One of the men guffawed loudly.
Will eyed Jackson with a contemptuous glare. He was several inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than
Will, thin to the point of emaciation. Suddenly Will reached out, grabbed Jackson by the front of his shirt and
pulled him out of his seat. The girl screamed and huddled in the back of the booth.
"Listen, you shitfaced little weasel. I don't like your looks. I don't like your attitude. And I don't like your
stinking up this bar with your presence."
He turned Jackson toward the door, grabbed the seat of his pants and pushed him across the room.
Outside, Will wrestled the youth to the squad car and slammed him against the hood. Pulling a pair of
handcuffs from his belt, Will quickly cuffed Jackson. He stood over him, his face nearly touching the
frightened man's face.
"Punks like you have to be taught. And you're so ignorant that you won't learn by listening. You have to be
He shoved Jackson into the back of the car, closed the door and went around to the driver's side.
Will started the engine, put the accelerator to the floor and peeled out of the parking lot, spraying gravel and
dust in his wake.
"What's this all about?" Jackson asked.
Will didn't answer.
"You got nothin' on me. You can't do this."
"Is that right?" Will asked. "How about contributing to the delinquency of a minor?"
"What the hell does that mean?"
"The girl back at the bar. She's underage."
"So, what's that got to do with me?"
"You were buying her liquor. That's against the law. You know about the law don't you? It's the same law
that prohibits lynching."
Jackson snorted. "She's a whore, man. A fuckin' whore."
"She's a minor, Jackson. If you want to add statutory rape to your list I'll be glad to oblige."
"You're crazy, man. You can't prove nothin'."
Will drove on in silence. Jackson peered through the window at the landscape whizzing by.
"Where we going?" he asked nervously.
Will didn't answer. He drove out of town and headed north.
Several miles from town, Will eased the car up towards Pirate's Hill. Jackson, suddenly realizing where they
were heading, started to protest. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead.
"What are you gonna do?"
"For God's sake, man. You can't do this!"
Will pulled to a stop, opened the door and climbed out. He looked to Jackson.
"You can't do this."
Will wrenched the door open, grabbed Jackson by the shirt and pulled him roughly from the car.
The rope swung lazily in the soft breeze, the noose forming an ominous "O", a chilling symbol of death. Will,
leading Jackson by the scruff of the neck, approached the rope and took it in his free hand.
"Jeezus! No!" Jackson screamed, his face contorted with fear.
Will shoved Jackson 's head into the noose, tightened it and pulled it taut. Jackson stood up straight keeping
the noose from choking him.
"You can't do this. I didn't do nothin'."
"Contributing to the delinquency. That's a hanging offense. Sorta like having dark skin."
Will gave another tug on the rope.
"Don't!" Jackson screamed. "It's chokin' me!"
"Is that what Robinson said?" Will asked. "Did he beg for mercy? Maybe struggle a little? Did he kick and
"I don't know what you're talkin' about."
"Oh, you can talk about it. You can't be tried again; double jeopardy and all that." He grinned. "Besides, you
ain't in any position to bargain now are you?"
He tugged on the rope, causing Jackson to stand on his toes.
"Got any last words?"
"Please!" Jackson shouted. "Please!"
Will held the rope taut for several seconds, his eyes riveted on Jackson 's contorted pleading face.
"Look at me, Jackson," he said at last.
Jackson's eyes, bright with panic, bored into Will's.
"This rope is attached to the lower limb of this tree. It's just like the rope that hanged Robinson, on the same
limb. Only difference being that the limb is being held down by another rope tied to a stake."
He nodded to the garden stake a few feet away. A rope of the same material as the rope around Jackson 's
neck was tied to the stake. The other end was tied to the end of the limb, holding it down until it was a few feet
from the ground.
"I'm gonna give you a chance that Robinson never got. As long as that rope holds, you're gonna be okay."
Jackson looked from the rope to Will, his pale eyes pleading silently. Will stared the man down, released his
grip and walked over to the stake. Pulling a small bottle from his jacket pocket, he unscrewed the cap and
emptied the contents of the bottle on to the rope. "Sulfuric acid," he said. "It does a hell of a job eating
through rope. It should eat it clean through in about an hour. Then the rope will give way and the tree limb
will spring up. I guess you know what happens then."
"God! No! You can't do that."
Will shrugged. "Here's where I'm gonna give you a break. Give me a phone number I can call to get someone
out here. I'll tell him where you are. If he can get out here before that rope gives way, you'll be okay."
He kicked at a pebble by Jackson 's foot.
"Who do you want me to call?"
"I...I don't know."
"Well, that's too bad," Will said, turning to leave.
"No. Wait! Call Buck."
"Now we're gettin' somewhere," Will said. He took a pad and pencil from his pocket. "What's the number?"
Jackson swallowed hard. "501...no...510-3222. No! That ain't right. It's 510-3322."
"You sure about that? This is the most important call you'll ever make in your life. Can't afford to fuck up."
"I'm sure," Jackson moaned. "Call him. Hurry!"
Will jotted the phone number down and strolled to the squad car. He picked up the two-way radio and
punched the talk button.
"Maggie," he said. "I need you to call a guy and tell him to get his ass up to Pirate's Hill pronto."
"Roger, Chief," Maggie said. "Who do I call?'
"The guy's name is Buck. Tell him that Jackson has his head in a noose and he'd better get up here in the next
forty-five minutes. Got that?"
"Roger. I need a phone number."
Will smiled inwardly. Good old Maggie. Never asked questions. He read off the phone number and had her
repeat it back to him.
"Tell him it's important that he gets here right away."
"Ten-four," Maggie said.
Will put the radio back in its holder, straightened up and stretched.
"Hope your friend don't have car trouble. I hate to think about what will happen if he can't make it. But, you
know, it will be like you said in court the other day. I'm leavin', just like you said you did. I won't be here when
that limb springs up and takes you with it. No, sir; I'll be back in town enjoyin' a cold one." He shook his head
sadly. "I saw a fella hanged once. It ain't pretty. Don't have the stomach for another one."
Will patted Jackson on the shoulder.
"Good luck, pal. Maybe I'll see you around."
He turned and walked to the car.
"No!" Jackson shouted. "Please Sheriff. Oh, God, don't leave me. I don't want to die."
"I don't suppose Robinson wanted to die either."
"We was just havin' a little fun, Sheriff. He was a no account nigger, man."
"Well, now, I guess I'm having some fun of my own. There ain't enough no account niggers around here, so I
had to settle for a no account white man. Too bad. But then, I guess it doesn't make a whole lot of difference.
Dead is dead. Don't matter what color you are when that happens."
Jackson began to cry.
Will glanced back at the pleading figure, noticed with amusement the wet stain on Jackson 's pants. Behind
Jackson the shadows playing on the granite outcropping formed a skull and crossbones. An eerie silence
gripped the hill.
Will studied Jackson 's pleading gaunt figure. Then he turned, and without looking back, climbed in the car
and drove away.
Will headed back to town at a leisurely pace. About halfway to town a car heading toward Pirate's Hill
whizzed by. Probably Buck, Will thought. Guess he'd make it in time. He started to turn and give chase, but
decided against it. Let him go. He was ten minutes from the hill. Will wouldn't want him to be late.
Not that it mattered all that much. After all, there was no danger of the rope failing. Will chuckled as he pulled
the bottle from his pocket, put it to his lips and drank the last remaining drops. Water.
He set the bottle aside and took a miniature tape recorder from his other pocket. He pushed the ‘play’ button
and listened with a satisfied smile to the whining, pleading voice of Bugs Jackson. That should really make a
hit with his drinking buddies at the Green Hat. And it just might take some of the swagger out of Bugs. Will
shrugged. Probably not. But one could always hope.