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Incident in Muttontown
Two stone tablets of native basalt hung above the entrance to the court of law
in Muttontown, Idaho. Below them, just inside the doorway, like a shortweighted
housewife, stood the familiar blindfolded figure of lady justice, holding her
empty scales aloft. On one of the tablets above, the following inscription was
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy
neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his
ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”
Those same charges were read aloud to Cliff Porter in a sing-song voice by the
court clerk on a warm Friday afternoon in Muttontown, Idaho.
Cliff Porter, the defendant, leaned forward and put his chin in his hands – he
had a personal interest in the inscription over the doorway and in the
blindfolded figure holding the empty scales.
He was accused of coveting. The fact that he was not proven guilty made no
difference to the court, for he was not an equal in the eyes of the law in
Muttontown. Not everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. Cliff was a vagrant
and a drifter. He owned no property, held no office and owed nobody anything.
Therefore, it being Friday afternoon, and bearing in mind all hangings are
performed on Saturday afternoons in Muttontown so all could attend, it was
prudent to get a decision from the jury immediately.
Judge Monday hemmed and hawed the court to silence and peered over his
spectacles at the jury. “Now I know all you good people,” he began, “... want to
reach a verdict as quickly as possible ... “ he looked at the large clock on the
wall. “... rather than waste time out there in the the jury room, let’s reach a
verdict right here and now.”
Cliff stood up and said that was illegal – that the jury must deliberate in
private – they should not be influenced by anyone in the court room.
“Sit down young man,” the judge said. “God tells us what to do here, not you. I
say you’re guilty and I know every man in the jury box thinks you’re guilty
“That’s another thing,” Cliff shouted. “Why are there no women on the jury?”
“Bailiff!” the judge banged his gavel. “Sit this man down and make him be quiet
... you’re an out of towner and you may not understand our ways, but ignorance
is no excuse. You’re a coveter Mr. Porter. We live by the Book here and coveting
is a serious crime in Muttontown. To answer your question – we don’t allow women
to make decisions of such magnitude.” He stared at Cliff belligerently and
added, “Thou shalt not do anything we say thou shalt not do. We here in
Muttontown know exactly what God had in mind when he forbade coveting.”
The men of Muttontown knew just about everything there was to know. They knew
exactly when time began, for instance. It was in the last week of November, on a
Friday afternoon at 4 pm, three thousand and forty nine years ago. They also
knew from long experience that when a man was brought in for trial he was guilty
– even if he was proved innocent, and when Friday rolled around things were tied
up neatly, the prisoner would get a last supper, a good night’s sleep and the
sentence would be carried out the next day.
In Cliff’s place the sentence was hanging.
Was he guilty? Cliff was sure his intentions were as honest, upright and
innocent as a man’s can be. He did not covet Marianne.
... Marianne. Such a lovely name to be linked with Brady Wicker. Not to mention
their son, Ben ... in danger of becoming a vacant headed farm boy because his
father spent every night in the Nugget saloon with the boys at the bar ... he
needed a father’s guidance. But did all that constitute covetousness?
Cliff didn’t think so, helping Ben with his school work, singing songs and
telling stories was the only contact he had with Marianne and her son. Cliff was
a vagabond, yes – and mistrusted for that. His guitar and a few books were all
he owned. He’d pick up a job if he had to, but only long enough to make some
It was sheep shearing time at the Wicker place and they were hiring anybody, and
Cliff hung on a little while after. Mrs. Wicker said Ben was having trouble in
school and maybe he could use a little extra learning at home.
So Cliff unraveled the mystery of numbers to little Ben, he made numbers stand
for something – not 2, but two eggs. Not 17, but the seventeenth of August. Day
by day Ben’s eyes lit up with understanding and the riddle of arithmetic was
finally resolved. To celebrate, Cliff read stories to him, and watched his
bright, mischievous eyes – a puppy’s eyes. He told Ben tales of wonder, of
dwarves and giants. Of princesses and dragons. He sang him songs ...
“The king of France with 40,000 men
Marched up the hill, and then marched back again.”
“Oh, do you know the muffin man,
Who lives in Drury Lane?”
And to the lady – the lone and lovely lady, he sang songs of sadness and love
“I’m bound, I’m bound away ...”
“But I being young and foolish ...”
Her brown, unblinking pony’s eyes ... yes, he watched them too. They stared
beyond him to a place he dared not go.
“But did I covet?” he asked himself. “I did not dare to covet. I grieved – I
grieved for them and their lack of a husband and a father.”
Judge Monday, a personal friend of Brady Wicker, did not agree, and the jury,
(looking at the big clock on the wall) was of a mind to heed God’s will. “Yes,”
they agreed – no man in such a situation could avoid the sin of covetness.
“You’re right, Judge, we agree. Every man Jack of us.”
“Then it is my duty to pronounce sentence upon you, Cliff Porter. You shall be
hanged tomorrow afternoon at three pm from the hanging tree in the village
square.” He banged his gavel smartly and the bailiff took Cliff away.
As night fell in Muttontown, Cliff stood by the window of his cell and watched
the sky darken and turn cerulean blue at the horizon and a darker blue above.
The first stars of the evening began to appear and he tried to remember their
names. Polaris? Orion? But he was in a strange town and all the stars were in
different places. His cell window faced the village square and he could see the
tree from which he would hang tomorrow. It was an old tree, bare of leaves on
its north side – he thought he could see the gallows branch.
How many men had died there? However many there were, there would be one more
tomorrow. But something was bound to happen. Something or someone would step in
tomorrow to save him. It had to be.
It was a lovely late summer Saturday afternoon, and except for the drunks who
couldn’t tear themselves away from the Nugget, the whole town was gathered on
the village square. The stand was already in place by the hanging tree. Its red,
white and blue bunting, slightly faded from a summer in the sun, decorated the
rail at the front and hung down low enough to conceal the body of a dangling
man. Mrs. Eunice Monday, the Judge’s wife. sat up front on a folding chair,
somewhat overflowing it and periodically glancing at the large watch pinned to
the bodice of her black lace blouse. She always dressed in somber black for
hangings, although black did not become her, she considered it necessary attire
for the wife of the only criminal courts judge in Muttontown. She was an
impatient woman with a roast in the oven and if the hanging didn’t get under way
soon, she knew it would be overdone. But then, she reminded herself, the Judge
liked it that way.
The appearance of the bailiff, the warden, the minister of the Church of Latter
and Judge Monday himself with Cliff Porter between them was the signal for
everyone to stop talking and face the hanging tree. The youngsters playing
baseball on the grassy field called a postponement and slowly fell in line
behind the adults gathered at the gallows stand. Cliff was shackled and he
appeared composed as he awkwardly made his way up the stairs to the gallows.
Some people mistakenly thought his composure was an outward sign of contrition –
actually he was waiting for the miracle that would prove his innocence.
Gossip and small talk was suspended and dry throats were cleared. The only voice
to be heard was that of the preacher who murmured words of prayer and
consolation. Cliff was heard to remark that he had not, in any way, coveted
anything not belonging to him – “in fact,” he mentioned in passing, “I didn’t
even covet the things I owned.”
The hangman adjusted the noose so its knot was situated snug against the
occipital bone behind the ear, the fitted the black hood over his head. The
officials on the stand then looked at each other and shrugged – signifying there
was nothing else to do. The lever was pulled and Cliff dropped out of sight.
There was a sharp crack!
It was loud enough to startle everyone. It was far too loud to come from Cliff.
Everyone, hanging party and onlookers alike gasped when the limb from the
hanging tree fell with a crash to the gallows floor. The judge, preacher,
hangman and warden disappeared in a welter of arms and legs and broken branches
just as Cliff, himself disappeared into the red, white and bunting below that
concealed his dangling body.
The astonished onlookers gasped, the women covered their mouths with their hands
and the men removed their cigars and the children cheered.
Mrs. Eunice Monday went over backwards in her chair. Her black straw hat fell
off and had to be retrieved by a bartender in red sleeve garters. “Well, I
never!” she exclaimed as he helped her to her feet.
When the trapdoor opened, Cliff blacked out for a second or two, and now, having
regained his senses, he assayed his condition. With his condemned man’s hood
tied securely under his chin, he could see nothing. He could feel nothing. But
he could hear frantic voices and a crash somewhere above him. If he had passed
into another dimension shouldn’t things be a little better organized? Was it
possible that life in the hereafter was just as disorderly as life on earth?
He had no way of knowing that the hanging branch of the handing tree had broken.
It fell directly on the platform where the warden, the minister of The Church of
Latter Day Saints, Judge Monday and the hangman stood watching Cliff Porter
disappear through the open trapdoor – presumably on his way to eternity.
Actually he landed, catlike, on his feet, below the platform wondering what on
earth happened and why he was still alive.
Only one of the party on the platform was conscious. The hangman, who stood a
little to the left and somewhat to the rear of the others, was untouched, the
others lay flattened under the tree. He glanced at the judge, the preacher and
the warden and crossed himself hastily – he had seen many die in his day and he
was quite sure nothing would revive them.
He looked out at the crowd gathered on the village square, in particular he
noticed the black stockinged legs and multi petticoated skirts of the judge’s
wife who had just fallen out of her chair in the excitement. Such foresight, and
so womanly of her to dress for the occasion, he thought ... but how did she know
it would be her husband and not ... Cliff Porter!
He suddenly realized the executed man was down under the platform! Had he
escaped his own execution?
The hangman found his way down the platform steps and pulled aside the red,
white and blue bunting that had been hung to hide the dangling body of the
condemned man. He was alive and standing with the slack noose dangling from his
neck. “There’s been an accident,” the hangman said. “You’re a free man.”
“What happened?” Cliff asked.
The hangman untied Cliff’s hands and removed the hood and noose from his neck.
“Come,” he said. “See for yourself.”
It was a sight to behold. Cliff stared out upon a sea of faces, all turned to
the gruesome sight on the platform above him. The sentence of death for the
crime of coveting had been irrevocably revoked ... by whom? Was it fate who
intervened? Was it the hand of God him or herself, or was it planned – perhaps
by the hand of a sympathetic Muttontowner? Was the branch sawed half through? He
turned to the hangman and said, “What do we do now?”
“We only have one go at a hanging,” he said. “If it don’t go off as it should,
the prisoner goes free.”
Cliff was in no mood to disagree. He thought perhaps it might be nice to say
goodbye to Marianne and her son – but decided to let sleeping dogs lie. He
thought perhaps he should stop off at the Muttontown jail and pick up his guitar
and the two books of stories and songs – but he decided to let those dogs lie
As he he walked westward into the setting sun he looked backward at the milling
crowd around the gallows tree, he reminded himself that the ten commandments
carved above the entrance to the Muttontown courthouse were a good rule to
follow, a lame excuse for a legal document and an unreliable verdict for an
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