The Legend Of Billy Smith

By: Ernst Luchs

“It’s your hangin’ day, Billy Smith,” said the sheriff through the bars. “Since you’ve been here, Billy, I’ve learned you ain’t such a bad boy. I was wrong before. We was all wrong, and I think we owe you an apology. I don’t want to see you beg and squeal and scream. I don’t want to see you kickin’ and dancin’ on air. I reckon I’ll just have to close my eyes when the time comes.”

Billy didn’t seem to notice the sheriff. He was standing on his bed, his face level with the window of his cell. The early morning rays of the sun shone in on him, bathing his face with a holy light. He stuck an arm through the bars and held his hand up toward the sky. A beautiful bird landed in the palm of his hand, singing a melody ever so sweet, a song so pure it was like the voice of God in falsetto.

“Them birds love ya’, don’t they, Billy?” said the sheriff with reverence in his voice.

“Yes,” answered Billy, “I should have been an ornithologist. I never dreamed that one day I would be just like a bird in a cage, singing for my supper, wishing I was free.”

“Well, Billy, you won’t have to do no singin’ today. This here bag of sunflower seeds is on the house. I throwed in some bread crumbs, too, and some gravel for your gizzard.”

The sheriff walked over to his cluttered desk and picked something off the top.

“I drawed up this here certificate to present you on the scaffold. It testifies that you, Billy Smith, are the cleanest, most well-behaved prisoner that we’ve ever had the pleasure to hang. In plain words, a model condemned man. And looky here,” said the sheriff, beaming as he held the document up to the bars, “it’s been signed by the governor. He says he’ll personally attend your funeral and see to it that your widow don’t go without, like so many widows do.”

“Let me see that,” said Billy. As the sheriff handed it through the bars, Billy grabbed his arm and yanked him close. Then he grabbed the sheriff by his hair and jerked him around so that his back was against the bars. Using the edge of the certificate like a knife, Billy drew it across the sheriff’s neck, cutting his throat from ear to ear.

“Ow! That smarts. Leggo!” demanded the sheriff.

“You better open this door, sheriff, or I’ll open it with your head.”

“No! No!” cried the sheriff. “You’re gonna hang. You’re gonna hang.” Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang went his head against the bars, and pop went the lock as the door swung free. Billy grabbed a gun first, then he rummaged through the desk, looking for beer nuts and traveler’s checks. As he went along he kept popping little odds and ends into his mouth, until he looked like a chipmunk with overstuffed pouches. In the back of his mind somewhere, Billy asked himself, “Why am I doing this? Pa will kill me this time for sure.” But his introspection lasted only a second. He found a tube of bright red lipstick, tasted it, tried some on, pursed his lips in front of a mirror, and then wiped it off. He tried to stuff a harmonica into his mouth but failed. He broke into a medicine cabinet and rubbed himself down with ammoniated spirits. “Now I truly feel like a polar bear,” he confided to himself as he tried mugging in the mirror again. Then he burst out with a laugh — the kind of raw, husky, liquor-laden laugh that a cowboy makes when he’s just heard an outrageous lie. But it was just one lonely laugh, the sort that keeps to itself, that runs away from home and wanders the streets at night, never to return.

Billy went over to the open cell where the sheriff lay. Using two six-shooters, he blasted holes into the floor around the body. The noise was deafening. “Dance, damn you, dance!” shouted Billy through the smoke. The body was motionless. A little songbird flitted in through the window. It landed on the sheriff’s head and went hungrily for the eyes.

Billy reloaded and ran out into the street, brandishing his weapons. “Look at that big chipmunk!” exclaimed an elderly woman. Billy shot at her. He started to fire wildly in all directions. The town got angry. Blam. Blam. Blam. Kapow. Kapow. Kapow. Bullets flew every which way like a storm raging in Hell. The blazing sun bore down, relentless, seeming to curse the name Billy Smith.

“We hate you, Billy Smith,” yelled everyone at once. Click, click, click was his reply. Out of bullets. He stood up from his crouching position and turned to run. Blam. Blam. Blam. Kapow. Kapow. Ack ack ack ack ack. They shot him in the back with everything they had. He turned to face them once more, caught a bullet in his teeth and collapsed to the ground where the dust ran red. His riddled body quivered like jelly as they continued to fire – muskets, Gatling guns and cannons spewing flames, echoing like thunder in a mad symphony of death.

“Give up, Billy Smith,” blared a loudspeaker. A German biplane strafed him mercilessly for several hours and then dropped a bomb. The carnage went on for three days and three nights with searchlights swiveling, hand grenades exploding and red-hot barrels bending like licorice. Finally, they stopped. “Come out with your hands up,” warned the loudspeaker.

When the smoke cleared nine days later, nothing was left but a radioactive crater filled with molten lead.


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