The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging.
He met them outside his trailer; a half dozen of them all dressed like cops, looking soiled and road-weary in their baggy blue uniforms, soda siphons hanging from their belts instead of guns and cuffs. No one spoke as they walked him down to the gallows, moving through the narrow alleys between the powerhouse trucks, costume tents and animal cages, heading for the spot on the infield grass where the white tops of the carnival’s seven performance pavilions lifted like billowing clouds. With ten minutes left before intermission a few of the candy butchers had already returned their covered pushcarts to the backyard area. They stood leaning against them, smoking cigarettes in orange and white coveralls, bored expressions on their faces. At the backdoor of the big tent he stopped to bounce a minute on his toes, a light dappling of rain blowing in off the bay, pricking up goose pimples on his bare arms and legs.
One of the clowns made a sour face. “You all right?” His lipstick smile almost touching the corners of his eyes. “You’re looking a little chunky.”
He ignored it but the truth was, he was overweight. The night before, the ache in his bad leg had kept him up, and after the two-and-a-half-hour jump from Monterey to San Francisco, he snuck down to the pie car and ate three pickles wrapped in ham. The pickles tasted good but didn’t fill him up, so he’d had a square of apple cobbler for dessert. He shouldn’t have done that, and in the morning forced himself to vomit before spending an hour jogging around the backyard area in a heavy overcoat. Now, as he stood there surrounded by the clowns, his belly was empty, and cold fear gripped his heart. He hoped he wasn’t about to go out there and break his goddamn neck.
Through a slit in the curtain he could see the horse opera was almost over. For nearly ninety minutes the sparse crowd in the infield bleachers had cheered the evening performance of the Markham & Markham Overland Carnival. They’d seen clowns and contortionists, trapeze artists and tight ropers, a hypnotist, a strongman, and a guy in a top hat who built a pyramid out of dogs. Now, as the Fabulous Texas Trick Riders of the Loose Deuce Ranch urged their mounts over a series of jumps for the big finale, people squirmed in their seats. Handkerchiefs were pressed to brows, a low murmur of bored chitchat meandering through the stands as fathers pulled out their watches and younger guys passed bottles on the sly.
The carnival’s horn players trumpeted the trick riders’ closing number and the horses blew past him in a dusty stampede of sequins, silk and fringed buckskin. He closed his eyes against the grit, letting the breeze ripple his cape, savoring the smell of the rain and the clean, lush scent of ball field grass.
Pepper Van Dean had no great love for stick and ball games. During his time as lightweight wrestling champion of the world he’d met his share of ballplayers and found most of them to be soft, shiftless men. Now as he stood there waiting to go out to be hanged, he suddenly felt a stab of envy, knowing some of those guys made five thousand dollars a year playing a child’s game. What a life it must be, he thought, to spend your afternoons chasing a ball around the lawn, consenting to play only if the weather suited you. For years his brand of chewing tobacco had featured a picture of Ty Cobb under the cap. He wondered how much a guy got paid for something like that. Moira would probably know.
“I should’ve been a ballplayer,” he said quietly, his eyes still closed, his toes wiggling inside his soft black boots.
“Shit,” the clown spat. “You and me both, asshole.”
When he finally looked, the stadium had gone quiet and a pair of stagehands in black executioner’s hoods were wheeling the towering gallows frame to the center of the tent. Once it was in place, Boyd Markham himself strolled out and posed in the hot island of a spotlight. Markham was a heavy man with a rolling wave of silver hair, and he wore his signature blood-red carnation pinned to the lapel of a slippery tuxedo. Underneath, the silver of his silk brocade vest exactly matched his immaculate bowtie. He pressed his mouth close to a freestanding microphone, filling the tent with a hushed reverence, the audience leaning forward to hear his words over the distant hum of the powerhouse trucks.
“Those of you familiar with physical culture may think you know this next act,” he said. “Those of you who are mere neophytes have no doubt still heard rumors of it, as its reputation precedes it throughout the civilized world. Indeed, a version of this daring deed has been attempted by a number of other performers with other, lesser traveling shows, sometimes with disastrous consequences.”
A nervous titter moved through the crowd, but the ringmaster silenced it by bringing his voice up a notch. “Martin Burns!” he said, and the name drew some scattered applause. “Rabbit Farnum! You may even recall headlines announcing the tragic death of the strongman Enoch Hughes, who lost his life attempting a similar gambit some years ago. Indeed, this courageous feat of athletic prowess has been tried by other men in other towns. Unfortunately it is my duty to inform you that most of these men are no more than charlatans, and their various renditions of the performance required little more than simple sleight of hand. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you will see no gimmicks, no tricks, no illusionist’s hoax. Simply put, what you are about to observe here this evening inside this humble cathedral of athletic performance will be the most amazing display of raw strength and boundless endurance that you will see in all your lives. Why? Because we believe you deserve nothing less than the best right here,” a pause, “in the great city of San Francisco!”
He basked for a moment in the cheers, the patient politician waiting out the adoring masses, smiling and nodding while the crowd revved itself up.
“As your humble chaperone this evening it is my duty to inform you that what comes next is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. Those who are easily disturbed or have small children in attendance may want to excuse yourselves to the midway, or to our splendid gaming and merchandise pavilions. Those of you who choose to remain will no doubt stand witness to something that will stay with you throughout all your years. I assure you, it has had a similar effect on me.”
He shielded his eyes from the spot and peered into the crowd, where no one was making for the exits. “Very well,” he said, nodding to someone in the wings. Another spotlight faded up at stage left, revealing the quartet of horn players standing beneath a banner that read, “Master of the Hangman’s Drop!” in three-foot purple script.
“Enough preamble,” the ringmaster said. “Please join me in welcoming the indestructible, unkillable man himself! The former lightweight wrestling champion of the world! Ladies and gentlemen, clap your hands for the master of the hangman’s drop! The immortal Pepper Van Dean!”
The horn players blasted out a Ta-da! as the clowns pulled back the curtain. They all walked out together, blinded for a moment by the heat and light. The polite applause turned to cheers as Pepper suddenly burst free of the clowns, sending them toppling in a heap, and jogged around the ring, raising a hand to wave at everyone and no one. As he came to the front he whipped off his cape and gave them all a good look at him in just his boots and wrestling tights.
He was a small man, all bone and gristle, his legs a little too short, his arms a little too long. His neck was so thick and powerful that it seemed to swallow up his shoulders. Cords of muscles rippled in it as he turned his head one way, then the other. Without warning, he spun and bent backward, balancing like a crab on the crown of his head, rolling and stretching his neck from side to side before kipping-up to his feet.
One of the stagehands came forward with a pair of handcuffs, holding them up for all to see, drawing the appropriate oohs and ahhs as he jerked Pepper’s arms behind his back and led him around to the gallows. Once they’d climbed the steps to the platform, Boyd Markham strolled over, silver hair and dark suit shining, microphone now cupped in his hand. “Mr. Van Dean,” he said. “Any final words?”
“Well,” Pepper said, voice cracking so badly he had to clear his throat and begin again. “Well, I’d just like to say,” taking some time to think it over, “God Bless America. I hope everyone had a great Fourth of July and, if I don’t see you, have a good Thanksgiving, a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, too.”
Some chuckles from the crowd.
“Is that all?” Markham asked, a tease in his voice.
Pepper swallowed hard. “Anybody got a drink?”
It was the summer of 1921, and prohibition jokes killed. One of the stagehands produced a third black hood from his pocket and tugged it over Pepper’s head—his world suddenly flushed into darkness—before dragging him back a few steps to the middle of the platform. His feet stumbling and scraping across the wood. Inside the hood, it smelled like mildew and old sweat. Though he couldn’t see, he knew by heart what happened next. The stagehands stood him on his mark and slipped the noose, fat and deadly, over his head. Two more men in executioner’s hoods brought torches out from the back and planted them in the dirt on either side of the gallows. The spotlights dimmed and the torches bathed them all in a pale glow.
“Enough pretense,” Markham announced. “Shall we put this man out of his misery?” The crowd cheered. “Okay boys,” he said to the stagehands. “Let’s do it.”
Pepper sucked in a gulp of air and held it, pinching his eyes shut. He couldn’t hear the crowd or the rumble of the powerhouse trucks or the crackle of the torches. Just his own breathing inside the hood. Footsteps moved across the platform as the stagehands approached a large red lever at one side of the gallows. He drew himself up as straight as he could, locking the muscles in his neck, back and shoulders, imagining Markham raising a hand to shoulder level, holding the crowd’s attention like Cesar deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator. Long moments now, and he cleared his mind, thinking only, as he always did, of Moira’s face just as Markham chopped his hand downward with a dramatic twist.
The stagehands pulled the lever and the trap door fell out from under him. He dropped like a shot, three feet, and jerked stiff, the tent quiet except for the clatter of the trap door and snap of the rope. The horn players blasted another triumphant Ta-da!, but Pepper didn’t move. A few moments of murmured confusion passed, and then the players tooted it again. Ta-da! Nothing. His body just hung there, still.
Whispers spread through the audience as the stagehands ran down the steps and under the platform. Markham jogged over. “What the hell is going on?” he demanded.
Another group of stagehands sprinted out carrying a stretcher, trailed by a man in a white doctor’s coat, a black bag in his hand. Markham leapt up and tore off Pepper’s hood, revealing his pallid, frozen face. A horrified gasp echoed through the stadium. Parents covered their children’s eyes. Men grumbled to each other, not sure if they should get up and leave. Then the stage lights winked out, leaving only the rippling torches.
Somewhere far off, an elephant trumpeted.
In the dark, a woman screamed.
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